President Barack Obama began the final year of his presidency with a speech on gun control. In it, he discussed a number of measures that he proposes to take by Executive Order to reduce gun violence in the United States.
It was a solid speech on many levels. Obama usually speaks with a teleprompter but as far as I can tell from the video, he did not use one in this case. Yes, he had his notes, but he spoke freely and even improvised from time to time. The result was very human and very powerful.
Whether you agree or disagree with Obama, let’s take a look at some of the things that he did well in his speech. It is below in its entirety. At 36 minutes, it is not short, but it is worth watching in full.
In the interests of time and space, I have not examined every aspect of Obama’s speech. Nevertheless, I set out below several reasons why I liked it.
Excellent eye contact
Asyndeton: “Fort Hood. Binghamton. Aurora. Oak Creek. Newtown. The Navy Yard. Santa Barbara. Charleston. San Bernardino. Too many.” (1:20)
Aporia: “How did we get here? How did we get to the place where people think requiring a comprehensive background check means taking away people’s guns?” (15:00)
Comparison: “We maybe can’t save everybody, but we could save some. Just as we don’t prevent all traffic accidents but we take steps to try to reduce traffic accidents.” (16:40)
Diacope: “The gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage but they cannot hold America hostage.” (20:00)
Anaphora: “So all of us need to demand a Congress brave enough to stand up to the gun lobby’s lies. All of us need to stand up and protect its citizens. All of us need to demand governors and legislatures and businesses do their part to make our communities safer.” (30:34)
Antimetabole: “The reason Congress blocks laws is because they want to win elections. And if you make it hard for them to win an election if they block those laws, they’ll change course, I promise you.” (32:05)
Strong, quotable statements
“I reject that thinking.” (15:45)
“And for those in Congress who so often rush to blame mental illness for mass shootings as a way of avoiding action on guns, here’s your chance to support these efforts. Put your money where your mouth is.” (25:45)
“If we can set it up so you can’t unlock your phone unless you’ve got the right fingerprint, why can’t we do the same thing for our guns?” (26:45)
“They had rights too.” (29:00)
Statistics to support his arguments
“Every single year, more than 30,000 Americans have their lives cut short by guns — 30,000. Suicides. Domestic violence. Gang shootouts. Accidents.” (4:27)
He also uses statistics to draw a nice comparison between the decline in gun deaths in Connecticut and the rise of gun deaths in Missouri. (17:30 to 18:05)
Obama effectively used quotes, especially those from Republican politicians that could be used to support his case: George W. Bush (14:25), John McCain (14:40) and Ronald Reagan (17:00).
Obama used humour appropriately. He was talking about a very difficult subject. Many people in the audience were either victims of gun violence or had lost loved ones to gun violence.
And yet, even in such circumstance, humour—used appropriately—can lighten the mood for a few moments before the speaker returns to the main, serious topic. Examples include:
- “That’s a long distance call.” (3:00)
- “And you know what? Research, science, those are good things, they work.” (18:40)
- “That’s why we made sure that the Affordable Care Act — also known as Obamacare …”. (25:47)
- “If there’s an app that can help us find a missing tablet — which happens to me often the older I get …”. (27:00)
Gun control is an emotional subject in the United States, particularly for the pro-gun lobby. But Barack Obama was not afraid to show emotion on behalf of the victims of gun violence. “Every time I think about those kids it gets me mad. And by the way, it happens on the streets of Chicago every day.” (30:00)
Obama told stories, including the tragic story of Zaevion Dobson, (33:40).
I don’t know how successful Obama will be with his initiatives, given the potential opposition that he faces from Congress and others. Indeed, as I write this post, the sniping has already started and it is fierce.
Nevertheless, I am glad to see him continue the fight for saner gun control laws in the United States. I find it incredible that this issue continues to plague that country.
I admire your public speaking acumen but disagree with your opinion on the need for more gun control in the United States. You might care to dig deeper into the arguments against gun control: http://www.cato.org/publications/policy-analysis/costs-consequences-gun-control
Thanks for the comment and link, Marley. I have gone through the document from the Cato Institute. It is thoughtful and well written and I agree with some of what the author has said.
At the same time, the author is selective in his analysis. For example, quoting Clarence Thomas on the scope of the Second Amendment without giving equal time to other Justices on the Supreme Court, or citing John Lott’s work without acknowledging the gaps that have been pointed out in his analysis of the situation. Or, when he mentions gun control initiatives in Great Britain and Australia, he goes to great lengths to note the shortcomings in the UK but is silent on the Australian experience which, by most counts, was successful.
I don’t disagree that some of the legislation in the U.S. that has been proposed or passed is complex and often convoluted. But this is often the case with any piece of legislation that gets passed, given the horse-trading that goes on and the riders that are attached. I think that is why the initiatives that Obama has put forward are, relatively speaking, mild when it comes to gun control.
Finally, some of what Obama is proposing is precisely what the author of the Cato Institute is proposing. For example, the Cato Institute article says:
I don’t dispute that this is a very complex issue and one that will take a lot of time and effort to sort through. But politicians on both sides of the divide have to start somewhere because the current situation is one that is neither acceptable nor sustainable.
But ultimately, and as you allude to in your comment, this blog is about public speaking. Regardless of one’s position on the issue, there is a lot that everyone can learn from Obama’s speech.
Let’s also not forget to mention that the Cato Institute is a well-known libertarian think tank mostly funded by the Koch brothers, and that while it is often taken to be a place of conservative policy analysis, it is far from impartial or objective in its policy support and development.
Indeed. I started going down a road which had no end in site and so had to cut my comment short. But you are right. Thanks for contributing to the discussion.
The error in logic in your reply is worth recognizing. Instead of considering the points raised by the Cato Institute analysis an argumentum ad hominem is used. It is the equivalent of me discounting anything put out with Bloomberg’s financial support.
My apologies if I come across as being argumentative. That is not my intent. Debate seldom changes anyone’s mind. We use logic and statistics to clothe our emotion-based judgements. There was a time when I opposed most gun ownership but life experiences and reflection have brought me around to an opposite conclusion.
Thanks for the comment, Marley. I will let Paula speak for herself if she chooses. But I don’t find you argumentative and I am glad that you are advancing a contrary position. It makes for a more interesting discussion. I have changed my mind on different issues over the years and have no problem letting go of a position if better logic comes along. But on the issue of gun control, I do believe that steps need to be taken to get control over this problem. Realistically, I am not sure what can be done given the proliferation of guns throughout the U.S. It’s a bit like closing the barn door after the horse has run out. But even if some modest proposals are implemented, it might create enough of a foundation on which others can build in the future. Let’s see. Thanks for the discussion.
This is a blog about public speaking, not about policy or issues. It is good to have at least a few of these–thanks very much John Zimmer.
I believe as speakers we must become skilled at, even superb at bypassing the message and understanding the underlying persuasive power of oratory.
As eternal students of this fabulous art, the relevant field of inquiry is “What did the speaker do well?” It takes a certain discipline and concentration to stay away from the content.
Excellent work–thank you!
Thank you very much for the comment, Rashid. It is difficult to separate message from oratory; for example, a speaker’s message could be very pernicious but, if delivered well, could sway many people. Just think of Hitler. At the same time, I agree with you that separating message and oratory, difficult though that may be, affords us window into what makes a great speaker a great speaker. We can then try to use those tools ourselves. But we still cannot forget the message! Thanks again and Happy New Year.
Thanks for this, John – adding analysis to the voice of reason and sanity.
Excellent analysis, John — just the thing I was looking for this morning. Love him or not, Obama has assembled a vast portfolio of great speeches over his career. I think they’ll be studying him for years in rhetoric classes.
You already covered it in the rhetorical devices section, but this was the soundbite that stood out for me: “The gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage but they cannot hold America hostage.”
Thanks for the comment, Rob. Much appreciated. Obama is definitely a great speaker. Having said, I still think that Bill Clinton was (and is) even better. Cheers and Happy New Year.
I still struggle when comparing Bill Clinton & Obama: both are superb and compelling in different ways. Obama has given us a wider and deeper body of work to study, and for this reason gets higher marks from me. Clinton’s recent DNC speech is perhaps the most effective convention speech of all time. How to choose? Both have given us oratorical gifts aplenty, so let’s celebrate that!
Oh I agree that both are excellent speakers. As to who is the better of the two, that will always remain a subjective choice. I pick Clinton because of his fluidity and ability to break away from the script with ease. Here is a great example of what I mean. But at the end of the day, they are both excellent speakers.
It is a tough call. Both very good, but also very different. I’d say Clinton is very consistent — he brings it most every time — while Obama, for some the simple “statements” he delivers, just reads them kind of laconically or hurriedly. On the other hand, when he’s on, he’s more likely than Clinton to bring me to tears. Like you said, it’s all subjective.
I appreciate you taking up a political speech and analyzing it. We do not see this often enough. Thank you.
Political oratory is a rich vein of material to study, and I for one love it. There is much to harvest here. Having an engineering background I value analysis and research greatly and love what you are dong here John.
We must remain disciplined to stay on task–i.e. learn about oratory–and not get drawn into the combat zone. Equanimity not passion is the needed mindset. Our devotion must be directed at the art and not the policy being discussed.
Two splendid books which cover political speeches are:
Lend Me Your Ears: Max Atkinson
Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln: James Hume
If you haven’t read them, and enjoy political oratory as much as I do, you are in for a treat
Thank you, Rashid. I have both books and they are great. Max has a good blog and you can find the link in my Blogroll in the sidebar.
Thank you. I love this post. Definitely lots of food for thought. While many Americans – mostly misled, I’d like to believe – can’t wait to get rid of president Obama, the rest of the world is certainly going to miss him.
I appreciate the comment. Thank you. Yes, I will miss Obama. It will be interesting to see what causes he takes up following his Presidency.
Thank you very much for your response.
I agree with you: it is difficult to separate message from a speakers mastery of oratory and rhetorical expertise. But it is necessary. It is the inability (perhaps too common) to do this that causes us to be swayed by pernicious messages.
We certainly ought not forget the message :).
This is another and important reason to study the power and mechanics of rhetoric. And this is why your blog is so important.
Hope the point I am trying to make sounds sensible. Indeed in the last chapter of my book I address this very concern.
This closing conversation would be incomplete without acknowledging the potentially dark side of PS&ST (Public Speaking & Storytelling) expertise. Expert public speakers and storytellers have the ability to mesmerize audiences. Period. It is irresponsible, even foolhardy, to stubbornly and endlessly deny this. Expert public speakers and storytellers can energize a crowd and propel it to action—even if that action is against our individual values and best judgment. This should not be underestimated. Some of history’s most horrific leaders were outstanding orators. It is our responsibility to remain idealists without illusions—no one else’s. When listening to any speaker or storyteller, par excellence, I counsel you to keep this thought somewhere in the back of your mind, “An expert public speaker and storyteller with selfish incentives, mal-intent, or flat-out malevolence is a very bad combination indeed.” The principle of “caveat emptor” or “buyer beware” applies. Enough said.
If you would like, I would be honored to send you a gift pdf copy of my book.
Thank you, Rashid. You have eloquently captured a very important point in the quote from your book. Thank you for sharing it with us. I would be delighted to read your book. At the moment, I am full up in terms of reading to do, but I will send you an email in due course when I have some more time available.
Obama is a good president and he knows the demerit of guns and USA business regarding gun production and supplying it to boost their economy.
The irony is that statistics show that whenever Obama has given a speech on gun control, there has been a spike in gun sales.