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Democratic National Convention, Day One: Michelle Obama

Democratic National Convention, Day One: Michelle Obama

The most effective speakers use positive emotions to persuade.  You can witness this truism in action in Michelle Obama’s speech from the first day of the Democratic National Convention.

The convention got off to a rocky start.  Many were outraged at revelations over the weekend stoking the darkest suspicions of Bernie Sanders’ supporters that the Democratic National Committee unfairly favored Hillary Clinton’s campaign.  The leaked e-mails hit squarely at Clinton’s Achilles heel—the sense that she isn’t trustworthy.  Some Sanders supporters made their fury known, booing at the mention of Clinton’s name and drowning out speakers throughout the first part of the convention.

The organizers of the convention tried to tamp down the anger through music (done quite effectively via a surprise visit by Paul Simon) and through comedy, offered (somewhat less effectively) by Senator Al Franken and comedian Sarah Silverman.  When Silverman, a former Sanders supporter, took the stage (accompanied by Franken) to offer brief remarks about why she now supports Clinton, some in the crowd were vocal with their displeasure.  Franken and Silverman then found themselves in the awkward position of having to stall for time prior to Paul Simon’s appearance.  In exasperation with the unruly crowd, a visibly frustrated Silverman said, “To the Bernie or Bust crowd: you’re being ridiculous.”  Silverman’s reaction to the crowd was understandable, but the moment provides a perfect illustration of the point we have made in a previous post:  You won’t persuade people by scolding them.  This may have persuaded Clinton’s supporters, but Sanders’ supporters continued to jeer.

Paul Simon quieted and briefly united the convention crowd by singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”  But it was Michelle Obama who moved the divided audience to cheers.

Michelle Obama had two goals: to inspire Clinton’s supporters and to persuade Sanders’ supporters to offer her their support.  It was clear from the experiences of the speakers who came before her that she would need to say something to meet the emotional needs of the Sanders supporters before she could make an argument on behalf of Clinton.  If she didn’t, they were likely to drown her out.

So Mrs. Obama began with a theme that everyone in the room would be likely to support:  the Obamas’ desire to be positive role models for their girls.  The Obama family is quite popular, particularly among Democrats.  What Bernie supporter would boo the image of the young Obama daughters, “the heart of our hearts,” as they headed out for their first day at their new school after moving into the White House?

“I will never forget that winter morning as I watched our girls, just 7 and 10 years old, pile into those black SUVs with all those big men with guns.  And I saw their little faces pressed up against the window, and the only thing I could think was, what have we done?”

With that image, Mrs. Obama got the audience hooked.  They were listening.  They were imagining those girls listening, too.  Mrs. Obama went on to explain that their children, and all the children in the country, look to their leaders to understand how to behave in the world.

“That is what Barack and I think about every day as we try to guide and protect our girls through the challenges of this unusual life in the spotlight, how we urge them to ignore those who question their father’s citizenship or faith. How we insist that the hateful language they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country. How we explain that when someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level. No, our motto is, when they go low, we go high.”

This was an important rhetorical moment in Mrs. Obama’s speech and an effective use of pathos.  She calmed the crowd with the image of her beloved girls; she made her supporters feel proud by reminding them of how she and her husband consistently keep their composure under stress; and then she inspired them with the challenge to “go high” rather than go negative.  Sanders supporters in the convention hall laughed and applauded just as the Clinton supporters did at these words.  Mrs. Obama reset the mood of the audience, putting them in a more receptive frame of mind to listen to her arguments on behalf of Hillary Clinton.

The remainder of the speech was a logos-based argument in support of Clinton’s candidacy.  In support of this argument, Mrs. Obama articulated Clinton’s extensive record of public service, her decades-long support of various Democratic causes, and evidence of her strength and tenacity.

More importantly, Mrs. Obama worked to repair some of the damage to Hillary Clinton’s ethos.  According to Aristotle, ethos requires calm, good sense, and good judgment.  Michelle Obama described Hillary Clinton in just those terms.  She referenced Chelsea Clinton, “who she has raised to perfection.”  She pointed to Mrs. Clinton’s reaction to losing the nomination in 2008 as evidence of her good will and level-headedness:

“And when she didn’t win the nomination eight years ago, she didn’t get angry or disillusioned. Hillary did not pack up and go home, because as a true public servant Hillary knows that this is so much bigger than her own desires and disappointments. So she proudly stepped up to serve our country once again as secretary of state, traveling the globe to keep our kids safe. And look, there were plenty of moments when Hillary could have decided that this work was too hard, that the price of public service was too high, that she was tired of being picked apart for how she looks or how she talks or even how she laughs. But here’s the thing. What I admire most about Hillary is that she never buckles under pressure. She never takes the easy way out. And Hillary Clinton has never quit on anything in her life.”

That grace under pressure is an essential part of ethos, and Mrs. Obama pointed to it as an essential quality for a president:

“Because when you have the nuclear codes at your fingertips and the military in your command, you can’t make snap decisions. You can’t have a thin skin or a tendency to lash out. You need to be steady and measured and well-informed.”

The final moments of Mrs. Obama’s speech returned to pathos-laden images, connecting Hillary Clinton to the sweep of American history and succinctly offering the reason that Hillary Clinton has inspired many of her followers:

“Leaders like Hillary Clinton who have the guts and the grace to keep coming back and putting those cracks in that highest and hardest glass ceiling until she finally breaks through, lifting all of us along with her.  That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.  And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.  And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters and all our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States.”

She ended with a call for unity, and also a positive message—pride in and hope for America:

“Don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country isn’t great, that somehow we need to make it great again. Because this right now is the greatest country on earth!”

The first day of the convention included several powerhouse speeches by Democratic favorites such as Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders.  But Michelle Obama’s speech stood out for its exemplary use of pathos to calm and persuade an angry crowd.

 

Lessons from Aristotle: How to Judge Political Rhetoric

Lessons from Aristotle: How to Judge Political Rhetoric

What should you watch for in the coming debates between the two presidential candidates? Here’s what Aristotle might say.

Aristotle is one of the first people on the planet to write about how verbal persuasion works, and his formulation in “The Rhetoric” continues to provide useful guidance to aspiring orators. Aristotle said a speaker persuades using three tools:

Ethos, or credibility. Aristotle wrote, “Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character, when the speech is spoken as to make us think him more credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others. There are three things which inspire confidence in the orator’s own character: Good sense, good moral character, and good will.” If you trust and like a speaker, you are more likely to believe him or her.

Pathos, or emotional engagement. Aristotle wrote, “Persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions.” A speaker who is able to get the audience to care about what she says is more persuasive.

Logos, or logic. Aristotle wrote, “Persuasion is effected through the speech itself when we have proved a truth or an apparent truth by means of the persuasive arguments suitable to the case in question.” To persuade listeners, a speaker’s logic must be clear and easy to follow.

Hillary Clinton

Ethos: Ethos is both Clinton’s greatest strength and at the same time her greatest vulnerability. To be credible, a speaker must know about a topic. Clinton has tremendous experience through her service as a U.S. senator, the secretary of state, and as the first lady. As President Obama said in his endorsement of her, “I don’t think there’s ever been someone so qualified to hold this office.” She is tough, intelligent and clearly understands the importance of preparation — witness, for example, her performance during the 11-hour hearing by the Senate’s Select Committee on Benghazi, in which she displayed a mastery of facts and policy. When Clinton speaks, her preparation and experience cloak her in authority.

But Clinton also comes to this election weighed down by the baggage of many years in the public eye. Trump’s label of “Crooked Hillary” is a direct attack on her ethos, and reminds the public of various ethics-related accusations made against Clinton or her husband, such as stories about foreign contributions to the Clinton Foundation, Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, and the impeachment of her husband arising out of his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Even when allegations of ethical misdeeds have proved unfounded, the sense that the Clintons are shady characters has stuck. This is an ethos problem; to counteract it, Clinton would be wise to be as forthcoming and frank as possible in all her campaign appearances.

Pathos: This is another area of both strength and weakness for Clinton. In the plus column, Clinton’s nomination for the presidency is a historic moment. She is the first female candidate nominated by a major political party. The prospect of a woman shattering the “highest, hardest glass ceiling” has galvanized many supporters and packs an emotional punch.

But Clinton also triggers strongly negative emotions in those who oppose her. “I’d vote for the devil before I would ever vote for that woman,” says one Trump supporter. Some of the vitriol aimed at Clinton bears a decidedly misogynistic tone — she has been labeled a shrew, a bitch, a harpy and a castrator (“I cross my legs involuntarily every time she comes on the air,” said Tucker Carlson).

Clinton also lacks the rhetorical skills of her husband or President Obama. Her delivery can be alternately flat or irritable, and she appears more comfortable with logical arguments than with emotional appeals. This is not universally the case, though — witness her fine victory speech as the presumptive nominee, which you can watch here. To be at her most persuasive, Clinton should aim for this level of emotional engagement in all her speeches.

Logos. In this area, Clinton shines. She has a lawyer’s mind, and knows how to make a logical, clear argument. We expect Clinton to show great strength in the debates in the area of logos.

Donald Trump

Ethos: Trump’s supporters find him to be credible because they believe he has business acumen and “tells it like it is.” Trump is willing to say things that are not politically correct; consequently, he appears frank and authentic to those who support him.

However, Trump lacks experience in governing. He has never held an elected office. He has no foreign policy experience. To maintain credibility, he will need to show how his business experience qualifies him for the position of president.

Finally, many Americans believe Trump lacks the “good moral sense” and “good will” that are foundational to Aristotle’s concept of ethos. He has a complicated backstory — he runs gambling casinos, has a history of marital infidelity and has been less than forthright about his own business success. And rather than demonstrate goodwill, he routinely denigrates those who disagree with him with xenophobic, racist and sexist attacks (a woman is a “fat pig,” “dog,” “disgusting” or a “beautiful piece of ass”; Mexicans are “rapists” bringing drugs; a federal judge overseeing a lawsuit against Trump cannot be objective because his parents emigrated from Mexico; Muslims should be banned from entering the country). Without a moral center, it is difficult to achieve ethos.

Pathos: During the primary race, Trump has done a better job than Clinton at galvanizing his supporters. His campaign appearances are marked by the high energy and enthusiasm of his followers. He is able to get his crowds to laugh and to cheer.

But he has also demonstrated the dark side of emotional engagement by fanning the flames of bigotry, misogyny and xenophobia. Plato warned against the teaching of rhetoric for precisely this sort of reason — he worried that it could be used to inflame a mob. Euripides described the problem like this: “A man of loose tongue, intemperate, trusting to tumult, leading the populace to mischief with empty words.” If he hopes to become presidential, Trump should drop the inflammatory language. He is charismatic enough to keep his listeners engaged without resorting to hate-filled discourse. (We promise a more complete analysis of the dark side of pathos in a future blog post.)

Logos: Trump’s proposals during the primaries have been largely devoid of any substance on which his logos could be judged. However, he uses plain language that listeners can easily follow, even if it is not always logical. He has gotten into trouble for making bombastic statements (such as when he said women should be punished if they get abortions), that he has later retracted. He will have to fill in the details of his proposals and lay them out clearly to the American people if he wants to succeed in his campaign.

Tongue-Tied Applied: The 2016 Presidential Election

Tongue-Tied Applied: The 2016 Presidential Election

Verbal persuasion is an empowering skill. If you know how to speak persuasively, you can shine both professionally and personally. There is nothing quite like the feeling of speaking well and being heard.

This blog, and our book, “Tongue-Tied America: Reviving the Art of Verbal Persuasion,” examine how rhetoric works. We are law school professors from the University of Virginia who teach advocacy, rhetoric, and negotiations. But our interest in oratory is not limited to the world of lawyers. We believe that anyone can — and should — learn to speak effectively.

Verbal persuasion also plays an essential role in the proper functioning of a healthy democracy. Government “by the people” requires that the people be involved — that they possess some basic understanding of how to speak to one another, and how to evaluate what others are saying. Debate — even sometimes contentious, unpleasant debate — is the way we hash out ideas.

The 2016 presidential campaign season is upon us, offering the perfect laboratory for examining the inner workings of verbal persuasion. The party conventions, political debates and various campaign speeches are exercises in rhetoric. The candidates and their supporters will try to persuade you of the wisdom of their positions; you may engage in a little political debate of your own with friends and family. If you understand rhetoric, you will be better positioned to evaluate the political campaigning that you hear, and to make successful arguments yourself.

What can you learn about rhetoric from the 2016 presidential race? Has this race changed all the rules? Our answer: No.

From time to time, we will offer rhetorical analysis on this blog. The point of this exercise is not to express opinions about the candidate’s political positions; instead, we will evaluate how the candidates express and explain their ideas.

 

Second Presidential Debate: Obama Gets Focused

Second Presidential Debate: Obama Gets Focused

The second presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney proved to be another clash between two expert rhetoricians. The winner of the debate depends on which poll you read, indicating that this continues to be a tight political race. Viewed in terms of pure rhetorical skill, however, the night goes to President Obama.

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The Vice-Presidential Debate: What Will You Remember?

The Vice-Presidential Debate: What Will You Remember?

That “whoosh” you may have heard last night was a collective sigh of relief, as Democrats across the country watched their vice-presidential candidate come out swinging. After President Obama’s low-energy performance during the first presidential debate, Democrats were itching for a show of strength from their ticket, and Joe Biden did not disappoint. But this morning, you may be hearing a different noise—a buzz of commentators asking, “Did he go too far?”

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First Presidential Debate

First Presidential Debate

Last night’s presidential debate was a pleasure to watch. President Obama and Governor Romney have extensive debate experience—over 50 debates between them—and the wonky political knowledge that a candidate must master to exude credibility. Both were able to project power, articulate complicated ideas clearly, and engage the audience. But Romney’s performance had a little extra pizzazz, a more deftly crafted message, and the energy that comes when a speaker knows that he is doing well, which let him carry the night.

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Plato, YouTube and Muhammad: When the Rules of Rhetoric Clash with Free Speech

Plato, YouTube and Muhammad: When the Rules of Rhetoric Clash with Free Speech

Plato hated rhetoric.  He worried that it made the “worse appear the better reason,” that it was a form of “flattery” designed to pull the wool over the eyes of the ignorant multitudes.

He conceded that rhetoric could be done well if the speaker was careful to speak the truth about what he said, if he took the time to explain his terms, if he paid attention to structure, and if he designed his speech to be appropriate for his particular audience.  Mostly, though, he worried about the inflammatory nature of rhetoric and the susceptibility of the audience to turn into a mob under the right circumstances.  Euripides described the problem like this:  “A man of loose tongue, intemperate, trusting to tumult, leading the populace to mischief with empty words.”

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Romney’s Criticism of Embassy Statement Misfires

Romney’s Criticism of Embassy Statement Misfires

In the midst of protests at the American embassy in Egypt and violence on the American embassy in Libya that left four people dead, including the American ambassador, Mitt Romney made news of his own.  He spoke out about what he described as the Obama administration’s reaction to the crisis, pointing to a release by the American embassy in Egypt.  His statements have gotten him into trouble, illustrating the importance of accuracy to effective rhetoric.

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The Democratic National Convention, Day Three: The Main Attraction — Barack Obama

The Democratic National Convention, Day Three: The Main Attraction — Barack Obama

The build-up was intense: Eloquent speeches by Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton and others; then a moving video tribute narrated by George Clooney.

The expectation was high. Obama has already delivered some of the most memorable speeches of his generation.

The president did not disappoint. Here’s how he came through:

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The Democratic National Convention, Day Three: Joe Biden Learns It’s Hard to Follow Clinton

The Democratic National Convention, Day Three: Joe Biden Learns It’s Hard to Follow Clinton

Joe Biden is capable of delivering a moving, inspiring speech. This was not his best.

Biden tried to establish an emotional connection with his audience by starting the talk as many of the speakers at these conventions have, by describing his love for his family. His declaration of love for his wife, whom he called “Kitten,” seemed oddly out-of-place for a formal speech, and went on for far too long. You can watch it here: 

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The Democratic National Convention, Day One: Starting With a Bang

The Democratic National Convention, Day One: Starting With a Bang

The first day of the Democratic National Convention was a pleasure for fans of rhetoric to watch. Many of the presentations were emotionally powerful and delivered superbly. (The terms that you’ll see in parentheses are Aristotle’s concepts of effective persuasion: ethos, or credibility; pathos, or emotional engagement; and logos, or logic. See our previous posts for more about these concepts.) Note how many of these hit some of the arguments that we listed in our previous post.  Speeches worth noting:

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Mitt Romney’s Etch A Sketch Problem: Why it is Difficult to Change Stories Mid-Campaign

Mitt Romney’s Etch A Sketch Problem: Why it is Difficult to Change Stories Mid-Campaign

You may recall a memorable moment in the Romney campaign back in March, when senior advisor Eric Fehrnstrom described the transition from the primaries to the general election as an opportunity for his candidate to reinvent himself:

 Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.

Admitting to this plan was roundly criticized as folly, but candidates traditionally must fine-tune (or even significantly overhaul) their messages as they transition from the primary race to the general election. The conventions offer a candidate the opportunity to introduce himself to voters who do not yet know him, and focus attention on his central themes.

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Using “Women” in the Republican National Convention

Using “Women” in the Republican National Convention

It was striking how many of the key speakers at the Republican National Convention reached for the theme of the importance of women.  In speech after speech, we heard about the dominant role that mothers have played in shaping the lives of these political figures: Chris Christie’s Sicilian mom, “the enforcer,” who taught him to speak “the truth, bluntly, directly and without much varnish”; Paul Ryan’s mom, who demonstrated true grit by earning a degree and starting a business after the death of his father; Mitt Romney’s mom, who ran for the Senate, telling her son, “Why should women have any less say than men, about the great decisions facing our nation?”  And we watched motherhood personified by Ann Romney, mother of five sons, who raised them during a time when Mitt traveled extensively for work. “”I’d call and try to offer support,” Mitt Romney explained. “But every mom knows that doesn’t help get the homework done or the kids out the door to school.”

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The Republican National Convention, Day Three: Mitt Romney Accepts the Nomination

The Republican National Convention, Day Three: Mitt Romney Accepts the Nomination

The Republican National Convention, Day Three: Mitt Romney Accepts the Nomination
The first half of Day Three of the Republican National Convention (or at least the part that was actually broadcast on network TV) was a bizarre train-wreck. Surprise guest Clint Eastwood may prove to be the most vivid memory that many viewers will take away from Mitt Romney’s big day, with his incoherent speech that included a strange (and off-color) dialogue with an invisible, imaginary Barack Obama. Florida’s Marco Rubio offered a speech that focused mostly on himself, made memorable by a flub that seemed to endorse bigger government, and with very little focus on the candidate he was meant to support. Mitt Romney himself did an adequate job with his acceptance speech, but we suspect that viewers will not remember it as vividly as they will the bizarre presentations that preceded him that night.

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The Republican National Convention, Day Two: Paul Ryan, Condoleezza Rice Set the Bar High

The Republican National Convention, Day Two: Paul Ryan, Condoleezza Rice Set the Bar High

Republicans were treated to two powerhouse speeches during the second day of their national convention.  Condoleezza Rice and Paul Ryan both demonstrated a flair for verbal persuasion, but in two very different ways.  Their speeches, taken side by side, show that there are many paths to the top of the rhetorical mountain.  The trick is to choose the one that suits your own personal, authentic style.

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The Republican National Convention, Day One: Ann Romney Overshadows Chris Christie

The Republican National Convention, Day One: Ann Romney Overshadows Chris Christie

The two most notable speeches during the first day of the Republican National Convention came from Ann Romney, the candidate’s wife, and from Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey and the keynote speaker of the convention. Despite Gov. Christie’s ease at the podium and reputation as a terrific speaker, Ann Romney — neither a politician nor a professional orator — outshone him. Here’s how:

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A Campaign Scorecard: Grading the Candidate’s Rhetoric

A Campaign Scorecard: Grading the Candidate’s Rhetoric

A presidential campaign offers the perfect opportunity to better understand how verbal persuasion works in action. The party conventions, political debates and various campaign speeches are exercises in rhetoric. The candidates and their supporters will try to persuade you of the wisdom of their positions; you may engage in a little political debating of your own with friends and family. If you know how rhetoric works, you will be better positioned to evaluate the political campaigning that you hear, and to make some successful arguments yourself.

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How Ethos Changes Everything: A Lesson from Aristotle for John Edwards

How Ethos Changes Everything: A Lesson from Aristotle for John Edwards

A jury on Thursday declared John Edwards to be not guilty of misusing campaign money, and deadlocked on five other charges against him. It is unlikely that the government will retry Edwards, so this may mark the end of Edwards’ legal battle against charges that he violated campaign finance laws by accepting enormous sums of money to hide his pregnant mistress from his wife, Elizabeth, who was dying of cancer. This was a case that turned most Americans’ stomachs — even those who defended Edwards’ actions under the law were disturbed by his lack of moral compass.

After the verdict (or lack thereof) was announced, John Edwards made a speech on the courthouse steps.

Edwards is a gifted orator, who first made his name as an attorney with a magical ability to connect with a jury. As one might expect, Edwards’ speech was crafted well, illustrating several rules of effective verbal persuasion. But that uneasy feeling that you may have experienced watching proves something that Aristotle first told us over 2,000 years ago: To persuade an audience, you must exhibit the highest moral character, or ethos. Your good reputation, once lost, will be difficult to regain, and your advocacy will suffer for it.

First, the good things. Edwards’ speech is easy to follow because it has a clean, clear structure. He makes only a few points, each separated from the other by a pause and an obvious transition statement. First, he thanks the jury for its service. Second, he apologizes for his moral transgressions. Third, he expresses love for his children and his parents. And finally, he hints as work that he plans to do in the future — perhaps to atone for sins, or perhaps to attempt a political comeback. A speech will be stronger if you choose a few simple points that you want to make, and if you write the presentation so that each is distinct from the other, as Edwards has done.

Edwards expresses humility by using simple language. He paints a picture of family life with his kids, Jack and Emma Clair, “who I take care of every day, and … get their breakfast ready, get ”em off to school, and then we get home at night and we all eat supper together.” He talks about his faithful parents, who “tromp up here from Robbins, North Carolina every day to be with me,” and his courageous daughter, Cate, “who loves her mother so, so much.” Choosing simple, everyday words can make a speech more powerful and a speaker more accessible.

As you watch the speech, you may find it difficult to take your eyes off Edwards’ elderly parents, standing to one side of him, and his daughter Cate, who stands on the other. Their faces, especially his father’s, show emotion that Edwards attempts to articulate, and it breaks your heart to see the pain that flashes in his father’s expression during various points in the speech. Good trial lawyers know that people are much more likely to believe things if they see them. This speech proves that point—visuals grab our attention. You notice what you see, and you remember it.

Which brings us to the way in which the speech falls short. The wordless emotion that Edwards’ family conveys seems so much more genuine than anything that Edwards himself can achieve, because we cannot forget what we know about Edwards. Even his apology is carefully crafted to protect him from legal trouble, which reminds you that this man is, of course, a lawyer: “While I do not believe I did anything illegal, or ever thought I was doing anything illegal, I did an awful, awful lot that was wrong and there is no one else responsible for my sins.” Would it be possible for him to say anything that could make you forget the pain that he has inflicted on his family, especially his dying wife, or the hubris that he exhibited in pursuing and the hiding the affair? Probably not. Listeners view every speech through the prism of what they already know about the speaker. Aristotle would tell Edwards that he needs to shore up that ethos of his. Go help those poor kids that Edwards speaks of at the end of the speech. His words might mean more once he does.

GOP’s “Basketball” Ad Finds Way to Go Negative on Obama — the Right Way

GOP’s “Basketball” Ad Finds Way to Go Negative on Obama — the Right Way

Today, Crossroads GPS, the conservative group founded by Karl Rove, released a new political ad criticizing President Obama, which will be aired widely across the country. The ad is also the work of Larry McCarthy, the producer of the questionable “Willie Horton” ad from 1988 — the one that played on racial fears by featuring images of a scary-looking African-American man as it accused Michael Dukakis of being soft on crime. With a pedigree like that, you might expect to see some bloodshed in this offering. But the Crossroads ad, called “Basketball,” shows surprising subtlety compared to other
ads prominent Republicans and the Tea Party have been offering voters of late. The Tea Party and other Republican groups should take note: “Basketball” plays well because it follows the basic rules of persuasion: Engage the audience’s reason and emotions.

The ad’s tone is surprisingly levelheaded. It doesn’t require you to hate President Obama, or to believe that he is evil, or a Muslim, or a radical bent on turning us all Socialist, or any of the other nonsense that the Tea Party or the more extreme corners of the Republican Party like to espouse. Instead, it tells the story of a pretty mother who loves to watch her kids play basketball. This mother says that she “supported President Obama because he spoke so beautifully. He promised change.” She liked him, she says. That rhetorical approach will keep audience members who also harbor a soft spot for
President Obama listening. The ad is illustrating a basic rule of classical rhetoric best articulated by the Greek historian (and political analyst) Thucydides, and well-known to successful trial lawyers: Don’t risk losing the confidence of your audience by picking a needless battle. Instead, figure out what you absolutely must argue in order to win and argue the heck out of that.

Then, in the blink of an eye, the pretty mother ages and the kids grow up. We see that her kids are now grown adults who “can’t find jobs to get their careers started, and I can’t afford to retire. And now we’re all living together again.” This is a terrific way to engage our emotions. “Basketball” puts its finger on exactly the fears that plague many Americans right now — the terror of students equipped with college degrees, weighed down by enormous debt and no job prospects; the anxiety of parents who see no way to ever stop working. If the writers had added in a dad who’d been laid off and now
can’t find a job because of his age, they would have achieved a perfect trifecta of the real struggles that many Americans face right now. And the neat visual effect of fast-forwarding the family from an idyllic childhood period to a more-bleak present provides compelling drama.

“Basketball” also employs a clever rhetorical twist by turning Obama’s 2008 election messages — “Change We Can Believe In” and “Yes We Can” — on their head. The mom tells us, “He promised change, but things have changed for the worse.” “Change” is something the family has suffered, not enjoyed, as the kids have grown and their prospects have shrunk. “Basketball” reminds voters of the disappointment they may have experienced in the years following the 2008 election.

The ad is weakest in terms of logic. Several claims are factually inaccurate, such as its declaration that the president’s health care law — most of which has not yet taken effect — has made health insurance more expensive. It accuses the president of “spending like our credit cards have no limits,” while ignoring the disastrous economic decisions made before Obama took office that arguably necessitated the spending. The ad also falsely implies that the president taxes and spends because he is unaware of the pain of the average American family, when in fact he would argue that this is what motivates his policies.

But “Basketball” is memorable because it strikes a tone that will resonate with many viewers, particularly those experiencing the hardships that are featured in it. It is an effort to reach the middle— those undecided voters who want things to change for the better, but are not yet sure how to make that happen. “Basketball” shows how negative ads work best — not by shouting and sarcasm, but by reason and empathy.

Molly Bishop Shadel is a professor of oral advocacy and rhetoric at the University of Virginia School of Law and is co-author of “Tongue-Tied America: Reviving the Art of Verbal Persuasion.”

How To Craft a Commencement Address: Steve Jobs’ 2005 Speech at Stanford University

How To Craft a Commencement Address: Steve Jobs’ 2005 Speech at Stanford University

It is graduation season, and across the country nervous keynote speakers are scrambling to write that perfect commencement address. How to do it well? If you are looking for a model of a stand-out graduation speech, you will want to watch Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement address to Stanford University.

Here is why it works.

A fundamental rule of speechmaking: Choose a topic that you care about, and figure out how to make your audience care about it, too. Jobs selected as his theme the importance of doing what you love and trusting yourself—a commonplace graduation topic made extraordinary by the personal, often humbling examples that Jobs offered from his own life.

By focusing on moments of failure, rather than moments of success, Jobs instantly connected with his audience. Steve Jobs was the founder of Apple Computers. He could have spoken of his multi-billion dollar fortune, the success and innovations of his companies, the role of technology in the future. He chose instead to talk about a handful of critical points in his life, moments of disappointment that his listeners could imagine suffering themselves. Suddenly, the multi-billion dollar innovator and pioneer of business became Everyman, a real person, making it easier to relate to and appreciate his advice. His tale resonated with the audience because there was nothing self-aggrandizing in it; he spoke of personal things because he wanted the audience to know and understand him. His credibility level, or ethos, was high from the outset because of his earnest desire to reach the audience.

His advice sticks because the stories illustrating it are unexpected and deeply personal. A speech is more likely to make an impression if you grab the audience’s attention from the beginning rather than wasting time with needless wind-up. Jobs accomplished this by promising “three stories from my life. No big deal, just three stories.” He took the audience by surprise when he confessed his lack of academic credentials—the speech at Stanford University was the closest he had come to graduating college. He then spoke of the unusual circumstances surrounding his adoption. He revealed an admirable strength of character as he explained that, despite the significance that his birth-mother placed on receiving a college education, he could not bear to see his working-class adoptive parents spend their life savings sending him to college. He opted instead to take a few part-time classes in subjects that interested him, which is how he found himself in a calligraphy class at Reed College.

That class became the basis for various for various fonts on the Apple operating system, the first system to have multiple typographies. And so Jobs began to weave his theme: Unconventional choices can offer opportunity if you look for it.

Jobs described how he was ousted from Apple Computer, the company he founded, and the uncertainty and shame that he suffered. As you listen to this portion of the speech, notice how adeptly he struck the perfect tone—likeable and credible. He revealed no trace of bitterness towards Apple or the executive who replaced him. Jobs explained that he came to view his departure from Apple as liberating, because it freed him to think about what he loved doing and forced him to do it (leading him to found the innovative, Oscar-winning film company, Pixar Studios).

Finally, Jobs spoke being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (the disease that ultimately took his life on October 5, 2011). He revealed grim details of his diagnosis and his fears about telling his family he might not live much longer. In a miraculous turn of events, Jobs survived the cancer at that time and was offered a second chance. By sharing this personal experience with the listeners, Jobs made that second chance theirs as well. Jobs implored graduates to remember that time is finite and to make the most of it.

Jobs’ stories were memorable because they were unexpected, humbling, and hopeful. His personal anecdotes were not widely known before he gave this speech, which left the audience feeling as if it were being let in on a secret. Jobs chose a topic that was meaningful to him; exhibited ethos in his modesty and honesty; captured attention by offering surprising tidbits of information; and ultimately packed an emotional punch through his willingness to be vulnerable. Instead of a formal commencement address, Jobs offered a warm, intimate, and compelling lecture about life. That is why, years later, you can see still his closing lines printed on bumper stickers or T-shirts:

“Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”

Mourdock Must Toss Tough Talk to Appeal to Indiana Voters

Mourdock Must Toss Tough Talk to Appeal to Indiana Voters

Many saw Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock’s defeat of six-term incumbent
Richard Lugar in last week’s Indiana GOP primary as another sign of the death of bipartisanship. Lugar was known for his willingness to work across party lines, while Mourdock caters to the Tea Party crowd. Pundits believe that Mourdock may yet play a central role in the Republican effort to take control of the Senate. But Mourdock may have a tough time winning a Senate seat unless he abandons the Tea Party’s “No compromises” rhetoric.

In interviews with The New York Times, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and local papers, Mourdock has pulled no punches. “The time for collegiality has passed. It’s time for confrontation,” he has said. “I certainly think bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view. […] Bipartisanship means they have to come our way […] To me, the highlight of politics, frankly, is to inflict my opinion on someone else with a microphone or in front of a camera.”

This rhetorical strategy has proved popular with Tea Party candidates intent on venting political frustrations and firing up like-minded voters. But Mourdock’s bombast violates the three most time-honored canons of verbal rhetoric, and it won’t appeal to mainstream voters.

First, to be persuasive over time, a speaker must project credibility, or what the classical Greek orators called ethos. Credibility is about commanding respect and trust by showing balance, judgment and calm. Mourdock has taken the opposite approach: His charges are jarring, designed to appeal only to his steadfast followers. Mourdock himself said in a recent TV interview that 60 percent of voters do not identify themselves as conservatives at all. Despite the weakness of his “my way or the highway” approach, Mourdock promises conflict over calm. This mismatch of reality and speaking style hurts the Republican’s credibility.

Second, a speaker must strike an emotional chord with his audience (pathos). But if the speaker attempts to incite feelings of hatred or anger, audience members who are not yet persuaded will mistrust this manipulation. Similarly, if the speaker appears to be in the grip of his own, overwhelming emotion, then his judgment appears clouded. Mourdock commits both of these errors. Language this outsized conjures up the specter of a speaker and an audience out of control. It may motivate hardline primary voters, but it will likely harm Mourdock’s attempts to appeal to the middle.

Third, advocates must pass the test of common sense (logos). They must provide facts and
logic to support their positions. Mourdock does neither. Very few voters believe we need more gridlock in Congress. The public’s approval of legislators is barely in double digits, and polls attest to Americans’ overwhelming dissatisfaction with bipartisan acrimony and the resulting legislative gridlock. Under Mourdock’s warped logic, this problem is the solution.

Mourdock has said his campaign is about two central goals: limited government and less federal spending. These goals have been obscured by Mourdock’s rhetoric of confrontation, but he can still salvage his message by following the classical rules for public speaking:

We face urgent problems. I intend to devote my full energy to helping make progress on all of them. I hope Americans of all political stripes will join in this effort. But solutions cannot come at the price of sacrificing cherished values and principles. Mine include two first and foremost: We must reign in the size and power of the federal government; and we cannot continue to spend more than, by any rational view, we can afford.

That’s the kind of message that will make Mourdock appear more credible to mainstream voters.