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.