Posted tagged ‘persuasion’

Persuasive Rhetoric in Obama’s Portland Speech

March 30, 2008

I enjoy analyzing Senator Barack Obama’s speeches using the red flags of persuasion and propaganda I just studied in a Persuasion and Ethics class. These red flags are not necessarily unethical persuasion measures, but rather rhetorical devices other than straight logic that in a perfect world, all audience members would be aware of. You can read a short handout on propaganda techniques here. Obama’s speeches are fun to analyze because his red flags are very subtle; instead of throwing emotive language everywhere, he tends to convey emotion through anecdotes. I have heard him use the same anecdote – some of you may remember the story about Ashley – in two speeches.

On March 21 he visited Oregon, the state I have attended college in for the past three years and will likely vote in the primary of. I was unable to see him speak in person, but instead watched his speech made in Portland, Ore. with Governor Bill Richardson’s endorsement immediately preceding it in its entirety online. These 35 minutes of course made the home page of as Richardson is the nation’s first and only Hispanic governor and close friend of the Clintons. (They watched this year’s Superbowl together, for crying out loud.) You can watch the speech in its entirety here.

Here are the red flags I’d like to highlight:

Plain folks: Governor Richardson spoke in Spanish at least twice throughout his endorsement in attempt to link himself with all of the Spanish speakers in this country and those who support them. The final time, he said, “Mi bueno amigo,” in reference to Obama, a phrase simple enough that most Americans who don’t speak Spanish would understand it.

Ad populum commentary: This is appealing to popular opinion without addressing specifics, which Governor Richardson and Senator Obama used extensively throughout that speech. My favorite Richardson quote on this matter is, “We need a foreign policy based on American ideals.” He also bashed President Bush, a popular kind of ad populum commentary among Democrats. Four minutes into the speech, after mostly flattering Obama, he makes the statement: “We all know who the real culprit is: the disastrous economic policies of the Bush Administration.” He does not go into specifics of what was wrong with Bush’s policies.

Rapport: Obama does this incredibly, both through words and body language. He began his speech with, “Feel free to sit down. I know you’ve been standing for a long time.” He then immediately continued with, “It’s great to be back here in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.” I’ve informally discovered that people from this area seem to think that the Pacific Northwest is the most beautiful place in the entire Universe. He also grabbed a wireless microphone so that he could walk around and face different directions in the crowd. This is probably a personal preference; I’ve noticed that he is a very animated speaker, using his hands a lot when tied to a podium. However, it was also an excellent nonverbal way to welcome the audience.

Emotive language: Obama did use some emotive language, mostly “hope” and “America(n)” from Rush Limbaugh’s list of words used to invoke positive emotions, and of course “change” – all us PR ninjas know that repetition is key to messaging. 

Anecdotes: Barack Obama tends to use anecdotes much more extensively than emotive language. Governor Richardson also told anecdotes, including a very positive one about his interaction with Obama during one of the televised Democratic debates. He combined this with humor, another persuasive technique, as it was a funny story.

This post is just a sampling. Obama and Richardson are certainly not the only politicians to use these in their speeches. Feel free to comment on persuasive rhetoric you observed in this speech or others.