Over $1.1billion has been spent so far on this year’s presidential debate. The American public, tired of two wars, a recession and a flagging economy is also suffering from campaign fatigue. There’s an outcry against political rhetoric. Yet it’s rhetoric that moves the needle. Witness the debate in Denver where a surging Obama came up short, and a once DOA candidate has come back to life. Early on, Romney responded to Obama saying, “let’s look at policies as opposed to rhetoric.” Lovers of irony everywhere should appreciate this comment. The debate was chock-full of rhetoric. So instead of looking at policy, let’s look at rhetoric. Specifically the rhetorical devices that both used.
Obama: "Gov. Romney doesn't have a five point plan. He has a one point plan." That is: Wealthy "play by a different set of rules." #debate
— Andy Kroll (@AndrewKroll) October 17, 2012
“Gov. Romney doesn’t have a five-point plan; he has a one-point plan. And that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules.” This phrase opened up Obama’s response to the first question. It’s the rhetorical device called Antistrophe (I know). Think of it as turning back. It’s the repetition of one or several words, at the end of one clause and the beginning of the next.
— Dan Pence (@dantheman007a) October 17, 2012
A close relation is Epistrophe. It’s an emphatic repetition of the word or phrase, this time at the end of the sentence. Romney used it for one of his best lines of the night, “When we’re talking about math that doesn’t add up, how about $5 trillion of deficits over the last four years. That’s math that doesn’t add up.”
— TheBlaze (@theblaze) October 17, 2012
Both Obama and Romney used Hyperbole. Romney said, “the reason I want middle-income taxpayers to have lower taxes is because middle-income taxpayers have been buried over the past four years.” That’s an exaggeration to create emphasis or effect. It’s probably one of the most common rhetorical devices. Since the only sure things in life are death and taxes, it’s likely that people actually buried aren’t paying tax.
To the Romans, many of the techniques of rhetoric were know as the “hidden darts”. The idea was that if a rhetorical form was successful, it would lodge invisibly in the mind of the audience, serving to embed message deep into memory. If the audience respond to your hidden dart by standing and applauding, or for that matter tweeting, then your subtle technique has been overplayed! Hidden darts, when fired superbly, are silent but deadly.
President Obama produced this little jewel some 21 minutes into the debate, and it slipped past Twitter completely unnoticed:
“I want to give middle-class families and folks who are striving to get into the middle-class some relief. Because they have been hit hard over the past decade. Over the last 15, over the last 20 years.
So four years ago I stood on a stage just like this one……..”
This is a rhetorical form called a diminution, and the President has deployed it to emphasize what a few short years he has had in the White House. Notice the stepped timings: “ a decade, 15 years, 20 years…” In the mind of the listener an unspoken time scale now stretches even further back: 25 years, 50 years. So what a tiny amount of time, by comparison is a mere four years. The President was then able to go on and describe various accomplishments that sounded all the more impressive for having only been achieved in such a short little period. And the Twitterverse remained silent. He slipped the deliberate diminution technique past everyone and let the silent but deadly message slip in. Now that’s rhetoric!
How about a few things that did light up on Twitter. Well, Big Bird most certainly proved an attention getter.
Obama: We haven't heard any specifics from Romney about solving deficit besides eliminating Big Bird and Planned Parenthood
— Jonathan Mandell (@NewYorkTheater) October 17, 2012
The reason “Big Bird” falls so compellingly on the eardrums is because it’s an example of alliteration, the repetition of a sound: b-b in this case. When President Obama used the Big Bird reference he also followed it up in the same sentence with the p-p sound of a second electoral alliteration: “Planned Parenthood”. It’s a cleverly chosen combo because in addition to both being alliterative, the letters “b” and “p” are also explosives. In order to say them, we have to explode air through our lips. Try saying “percussion” right now and feel your lips explode with a pop of breath on that first “p”.
Explosive consonants, when used in alliteration, become both memorable and pleasing to the ear. Big Bird and Planned Parenthood were made for each other!
Governor Romney’s “binders full of women” took the title of rhetorical back-fire of the night, and became have been the evening’s number one tweet topic.
'Binders' Dominate Twitter Activity, Google Searches in Presidential Debate – http://t.co/gxIVszbf
— Mashable (@mashable) October 17, 2012
“Binders full of women” was a hyperbolic attempt at demonstrating equal opportunity employment, but toppled over into unintentional euphemism as the audience instantly reflected on that other group of professionals, often associated with politicians, for whom binders-full-of-women would be a stock-in-trade.
Rhetoric is word-play. It helps us to arrange sounds and structures into forms that connect with an audience on a deeper level. At it’s simplest, it can be the use of repetition techniques to emphasize a key word. At it’s most complex it can take on a sudoku-like intricacy. When overdone, there can be all manner of embarrassing unintentional consequences. One might even say “binders-full” of consequences.
Gavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.
Peter is a writer, trainer, and speaker on all aspects of Presenting. He coaches business executives in how to be at their best when on their feet. His bi-weekly blog, The Presenters’ Blog, examines core disciplines of public speaking and looks at how those disciplines are being illustrated by new stories around the world. You can follow his Twitter feed on @speak2all
A Note about bias. Neither of us can or will be voting in the US elections, but, like all humans, we have biases. We will try to look at the debates purely from a point of view of speaking, messaging and presenting, to see what the rest of us — those that will never run for President, can learn.