Like many Americans, I stayed close to a TV on July 26, listening to the prime time speeches during day one of the Democratic Convention, just as I had done a week before during the Republican Convention. I knew there would be protests, that Sanders supporters were set to make a stand, and that Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Michelle Obama, and Bernie Sanders would speak.
I expected all the speakers to do well—to deliver their messages with pride and passion. And they did. But from the moment the first lady stepped onto the stage, I sensed a change in the convention hall. She was radiant in deep blue, with that wide smile and direct way of looking at her audience. As she began to speak, the raucous crowd quieted; all eyes on her, and then she delivered what to me was the most impressive speech of either convention so far. In roughly 1500 words, she supported her husband’s legacy, showed why Trump would be an inadequate president at best (without ever mentioning his name), explained why she supports Hillary Clinton (and why it’s important that girls everywhere think of it as routine for a woman to be President), and underscored her (and Clinton’s) focus on children and families. This brief speech packed a powerful yet subtle punch.
I took a closer look at the speech today, and came away impressed again with our first lady’s ability to connect to audiences and with the strategies she uses to do so. Of the roughly 1500 words in this speech, 43 of them are “we” “our,” or “us”—and another 35 are words that refer to young people—“kids,” “daughters,” “sons,” “children,” “our children,” and so on. The repetition of these key words hammers home her message: that the decision we make in November will affect how our children are able to lead their lives. And in this endeavor—this focus on the good of our nation’s children—Ms. Obama aligns herself with Secretary Clinton, as mothers who care above all for “our children.”
So repetition is one key to the power of this speech, but alliteration and parallelism also work to make the words very memorable: “the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation”; “character and conviction”; “guts and grace”; and many more. And the use of simple word choice and syntax underscores and amplifies sentences like “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”
So this is a speech to savor, and to save. I plan to use it in classes, asking students to read it and then carry out their own mini rhetorical analyses, then to watch the speech as Michelle Obama delivered it, noting her pacing (flawless), her pauses, her facial expressions and body language. My guess is that students will learn a lot about how they can improve as speakers and presenters. And that they will have more insightful and thoughtful responses to the message the speech sends from having done so.