7 Strategies Obama Uses to Make an Impact


This is not an article about politics. Instead, it is about 7 strategies for creating impact with your words. We will use samples from President Obama’s July 17th weekly address as an example of impact strategies. 

President Obama is a powerful speaker. What does that mean? Being a powerful speaker means that people are interested in what you say and that they react emotionally and cognitively to your message. This is impact. Whether intuitively or consciously, powerful speakers use specific strategies to create impact, and we can study those strategies and learn to use them, as well. 

A. FIRST EXAMPLE

Speaking of the GOPs resistance to extending jobless benefits, Obama stated that his opponents will “filibuster our recovery and obstruct our progress.” He is contradicting his opponents, and in these 7 words, the president used a whopping 4 impact strategies. 

1. Make an ad hominem attack

An ad hominem attack is an attack on the character or traits of an opponent in an attempt to discredit his or her ideas. (It is also a logical fallacy because a person’s traits may not have anything to do with the correctness of his ideas.) Basically, when you use this strategy, you are telling your audience that your opponent’s ideas are wrong because your opponent is a bad person. You divert attention from the opponent’s ideas and, instead, focus attention on the opponent’s character. 

What is the president saying with these words? Instead of arguing the correctness of his plans and the incorrectness of his opponents’ ideas, he is stating that they are bad people so any idea of theirs is wrong. And any personal attack is more emotionally charged, has more impact, than an objective discussion, which is why an ad hominem attack is an impact strategy. 

2. Employ parallelism

Parallelism is making two or more statements that have the same grammatical structure. If we look at the two parts of this statement individually, we see that Obama has done this. The first part, “filibuster our recovery,” has the grammatical structure of [present tense transitive verb] + “our” + [object]. The second part of this statement, “obstruct our progress,” has the same structure. In short, Obama is using parallelism to attack his opponents of his plan. 

When you use parallelism, you increase attention on the ideas you express. Their equal structure makes them stand out and helps the audience remember them. In a speech, such as Obama’s, statements in a parallel structure make great sound bites. They have impact. 

3. Use words in an unexpected way

Obama is using the word filibuster as a transitive verb, which, though legitimate, is uncommon. What is most interesting about his use of filibuster, however, is that the object of this verb is “recovery.” In standard usage, filibuster means impeding or obstructing legislation. You can filibuster legislation, thus preventing it from passing. In this instance, the object of filibuster is not legislation but “recovery.” Obama has used this word in an uncommon, unexpected manner. This makes the audience pay closer attention to his statement and adds impact to what he says. 

4. Accuse opponents of being against something good.

One strategy for making people believe that you are right and that your critics are wrong is to state that your critics are opposed to something good. Most people believe themselves to be good. They like to think that they support good things. Even two people with opposite viewpoints on an issue will each think that he or she is right. The important concept here is that a person will respond emotionally to discussions about right and wrong because his self-perception and self-worth are at stake. This emotional response creates impact. Now, let’s apply this to Obama’s statement. 

Recovery and progress are good things, and, according to Obama, his opponents oppose them. By making this statement, Obama exploits people’s need to be on the side of good. As Obama explains, being on the side of good means agreeing with him and disagreeing with his critics. Whether consciously or not, people will have an emotional need to agree with him so that they can maintain their self-perception of being a good person. This gives them a feeling of self-worth, and this emotional response creates impact. 

B. SECOND EXAMPLE

Also in his speech, Obama discussed his reasons for extending jobless benefits. He stated, “These steps aren’t just the right thing to do for those hardest hit by the recession. They’re the right thing to do for all of us.” Here, Obama uses another 3 strategies for making an impact. 

5. Present antithetical statements

An antithetical statement presents contrasting statements, rejecting the first and proposing the second, i.e., the “not this . . . but that” structure. It is a rhetorical device for increasing impact. When you reject the first statement, you force the audience to ask the question, “If it’s not that, then what is it?” Then you provide the answer. In this way, you get the audience to think about the idea, and this not only makes the audience pay attention to what you say but also increases the likelihood that they will agree with you. This strategy has greater impact when the thing you are rejecting is considered good, in this example “the right thing to do for those hardest hit by the recession.” 

Obama clearly uses this strategy. His plan, he says, IS NOT “the right thing to do for those hardest hit by the recession.” That’s the first part of the equation, which creates the question. Then he follows with the second part, which answers the question: BUT IS “the right thing do to for all of us.” By answering the question, he relieves the mental tension created by an unanswered question. This increases emphasis on the second idea and makes it pleasurable for the audience. 

6. Repeat words

Any time you repeat words, you increase the audience’s attention on them. Accordingly, if you want your audience to focus on a particular idea, you can repeat words that express that idea. Obama wants his audience to believe that his plan represents the right thing to do, so he repeats the phrase “right thing to do.” What will the audience remember from this section of his speech? They will remember “right thing to do” because he used this technique. A strategy that increases attention and remembrance is an impact strategy. 

7. Replace a narrow statement with a broader one

This is a rhetorical strategy called metanoia. Using this strategy, you make and reject a specific, limited idea. Then you replace it with a broader, more inclusive idea. (Metanoia can be used in other ways, but this is how Obama used it.) The effect of this strategy is to show how the idea relates to the audience, who may not be affected by the original statement. 

Obama is not speaking to people who will receive jobless benefits. He is not trying to convince them to pass legislation. He is speaking to legislators and taxpayers who will not be the recipients of this plan. Why should they care? Obama uses metanoia to explain how his plan is relevant to them and to tell them why they should care. First, he states and rejects the idea that his plan is the right thing for “those hardest hit by the recession.” That statement only addresses the needs of a specific group of people. Then he claims that his plan is right for “all of us.” He needs to make an impact on the audience, and this is one strategy he uses. 

THE ETHICS OF USING IMPACT STRATEGIES

Are people being deceptive when they use impact strategies? Are they being devious? Not necessarily. When we write or speak, we are attempting to persuade our audience that we are right. We want our audience to respond in a particular manner, to think or act according to our purposes. These rhetorical devices are neither right nor wrong. They are simply the tools to help us achieve our goals.
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