It’s probably one of the most difficult speeches that any incoming president of the US has had to make. As a speechwriter, I often refer clients to President Obama’s first inauguration speech.
It’s a treasure trove of good speech content. There’s poetry, there’s the big picture, there are rhetorical flourishes and there are stories. It varies in pace and style and so it helps to keep the attention of the audience.
How does Joe Biden’s speech compare to one delivered by the previous Democrat inhabitant of the White House?
The new president starts very sensibly by laying out a key theme – that democracy has triumphed – with a strong alliteration. Those two “d’s” get the speech off to a strong start. His audience will have in mind the recent insurrection and claims of stolen votes and so it’s important that this issue is addressed first.
Just like Obama’s speech, and any other effective remarks by a leader, Biden has an element of modesty. This day belongs to democracy, and by implication, to the people of the US, not to him. Rather than allow this upbeat assertion to sound triumphalist he points out that
“We’ve learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile.”
His sentences are short. This suits someone of his age and a man who has to struggle with a stutter. I like short sentences too. They sound strong. But a speech requires variety. And that’s why you can blend them with longer, more sonorous, more mellifluous sentences that build, over a number of elegant phrases, to a climax, satisfying an audience that is wondering where this particular phrase and the idea that it supports, is going.
Here’s an example from Obama’s speech to the 2004 Democratic Convention, the one that made his name.
“Tonight, if you feel the same energy I do, the same urgency I do, the same passion I do, the same hopefulness I do — if we do what we must do, then I have no doubt that all across the country, from Florida to Oregon, from Washington to Maine, the people will rise up in November, and John Kerry will be sworn in as president, and John Edwards will be sworn in as vice president, and this country will reclaim its promise, and out of this long political darkness a brighter day will come.”
Wow, eh? Long sentences do work in speeches.
Anyway, back to Biden. Every inauguration speech needs a little bit of religion and Biden uses it to continue his theme.
“From now, on this hallowed ground, where just a few days ago, violence sought to shake the Capitol’s very foundation, we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible,”
he says. Later he talks about St Augustine in a hint at his own faith. An inauguration speech also needs a bit of history, hence the subsequent reference to George Washington with a comment about Abraham Lincoln a little later. Is the implication here that President Biden’s immediate predecessor was not of this ilk?
There’s a lovely reference to the environmental agenda.
“The cry for survival comes from the planet itself, a cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear.”
There’s just the right amount of emotion here, as President Biden compares our earth to a living creature. Metaphor and analogy are important elements of any good speech.
Unity has to be an important theme of his speech and so the incoming president mentions it twice.
This seems slightly odd to me – why not go for the power of three? I do like the way, though, that he injects a note of personal passion:
“On this January day, my whole soul is in this: Bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation. And I ask every American to join me in this cause.”
He goes on to connect with his audience:
“And we must meet this moment as the United States of America. If we do that, I guarantee you we will not fail. We have never, ever, ever, ever failed in America when we’ve acted together.”
There’s then a great example of that power of three:
“Hear one another, see one another, show respect to one another.”
It’s followed by a simple, powerful, visual metaphor:
“Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path.”
There are, though, few other memorable phrases or colourful, rhetorical flourishes, after all, Mr. Biden is a more solid, workaday speaker than Barak Obama.
However, this has caught many people’s imagination:
“We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural vs. urban, conservative vs. liberal.”
The horror of the United States Civil War has always played a particular role in the country’s politics and, following the events of the last few weeks, it’s even more prescient today.
“These cascading crises of our era,”
is another noticeable example. I always include a couple of striking phrases in my clients’ speeches.
Biden’s speechwriters are obviously aware that a key audience at this time will be overseas governments. I like the way that he signposts this section of the speech very clearly:
“So here’s my message to those beyond our borders.”
There follows another example of the power of three and this one works well because it has a sense of progression, of moving forwards:
“Not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.”
Here’s another point – Barak Obama’s first inauguration speech was about 17 minutes while Mr. Biden’s runs for around 22 minutes. This is roughly the same length as a TED Talk. Ever been asked to speak for longer? Think twice about it.
The peroration is a key part of any speech or presentation and as a speechwriter, I spend a lot of time considering it with my clients. President Biden’s is uplifting and inclusive, as well as using, once again, that striking power of three:
“Sustained by faith, driven by conviction, devoted to one another and the country we love with all our hearts.”
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