I spent much of last week working in my office with one eye on the Democratic National Convention in the US as it played out on cable news here in Japan (and yes, I'm watching the RNC this week as well in search of some good speeches). Convention speeches can sometimes be real snoozers, and this year's DNC in Denver had a couple of those, but I thought most of the speeches were good, and some were excellent, including those by Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, and Michelle Obama. But the one everyone is talking about is the acceptance speech by Barack Obama Thursday night in a packed outdoor stadium. Many are calling Obama's speech — including many conservatives — one of the greatest political speeches in recent memory. Pat Buchanan, a conservative commentator and former speech writer for Richard Nixon, had this to say of the speech: "It was a genuinely outstanding speech. It was magnificent...this is the greatest convention speech and probably the most important." This coming from a conservative and a man who's been there in person to see the best political speeches in American modern history — JFK, MLK, Ronald Reagan, etc. But I think the independent David Gergen (who has served with the Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton administrations) put it best when he described Obama's speech on CNN this way: "As a speech, I was deeply impressed. In many ways it was less a speech than a symphony.”
Above: Watch Obama's acceptance speech on the DNC website in HD.
A speech like a symphony
How is a great speech like a great symphony? There are different kinds of symphonies just as there are different kinds of speeches, but a symphony — like a good speech — takes you some place. It has a shape, it has forms. Fast/slow, loud/quite, all of which may be separated by a short pause or silence. A symphony has different movements and forms, and yet it has a harmonious whole. Symphony has much in common with story as well. A powerful symphony and a well crafted and delivered speech, in their own ways, move the listener.
What makes a good story?
In a great story — and in a great speech — there is ebb and flow, there is silence and there may be thunder. There is the abstract and the concrete. A great storyteller zooms in to the particular to underscore the general theme, and at other times pulls back to illuminate the big picture and the general, giving even greater strength to the particular. We know that there are three very basic parts of story: The beginning, the middle, the end. In a wonderful book about the power of the visual in storytelling by Bruce Block (The Visual Story: Creating the Visual Structure of Film, TV, and Digital Media), the author uses these three basics of story — Exposition, Climax, Resolution — to show the link between visual structure and story structure. To illustrate this link in terms of intensity he shows a story-structure graph; the story intensity refers to the amount of conflict that builds in the middle. Generally, a good story grows in intensity as it progresses. Block draws a line that is jagged because a story's intensity will rise and fall even though the overall direction of the intensity is building up and toward a climax. The resolution, says Block, "...is a place for the story to finish...the audience needs time to recover from the intensity of the climax and reflect on the story's conflict."
Above: After I watched Obama's speech for the second time (this time in a coffee shop on my MacBook) I quickly jotted down this intensity graph on the back of a napkin. This is similar to the graph in The Visual Story and is very loosely based on how I visualized the general intensity of his speech. There were many high points in terms of intensity in the middle. I didn't feel his final words were the climax; perhaps the climax was a bit earlier. His final minute or two seemed like it was meant to be more a part of the resolution. I'm not certain about this; I'd love to hear your opinion. Regardless of the designed structure, it worked. When Pat Buchanan can't stop praising the speech of a Democrat, either pigs are flying, or it was indeed a remarkable speech.
In your own words
Perhaps one reason why Obama is so good at these big events, when expectations are so high, is that he writes his own speeches. "This man is a professional orator and a writer of his own speeches," said Pat Buchanan. Yes, he is reading off three teleprompters, but because these are his words that he wrote after much preparation, it seems natural, almost conversational. Forceful without being forced. It's believed that President Ronald Reagan wrote many of his own speeches as well (a fact that his son Michael Reagan alluded to today in an interview on Air America), which is perhaps why he too seemed so natural and compelling as a orator so many years ago.
• See clip of Pat Buchanan commenting on Obama's speech.
• Text of Obama's speech in Denver.