As a newly minted Washingtonian, I stood in my warm coat and waived my American flag among a cheering crowd on the National Mall yesterday. As a teacher of public speaking, I listened to President Obama’s second inaugural address and was struck by one particular rhetorical technique from which we can learn.
Regardless of where you stand on the politics of the speech, let’s take a look at how the President used the power of connection. By connecting the message of our speech with powerful, collective experiences and ideas shared by our audience, each of use can add urgency, perspective, and depth to our speeches.
Connecting Past and Present
The President opened his speech by quoting the Declaration of Independence, connecting the work our forefathers began to the work which we continue today.
He started by recalling the past:
- “Our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago,”
- “Lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared,”
- “We, the people,” (a phrase he repeated five times).
He then connected past with present:
- “Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time,”
- “Fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges,”
- “That is our generation’s task – to make these words, these rights, these values – of Life, and Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – real for every American.”
He then connected present with future:
- “Today’s victories will be only partial…it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.”
Now, having imbued us with a sense of collective purpose, he created urgency:
- “We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.”
- “Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.”
- “My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it — so long as we seize it together.”
Connection through Contrast
Having created a connection between an historic time in our nation’s past and this momentous occasion in our nation’s present, he used contrast and plays on words to connect the dots in new ways, mostly focused on connecting the individual to the nation as a whole:
- “While these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing,”
- “While freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth,”
- “Preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”
Interestingly enough, the president only used the word “I” at the very end of the speech, and he used it to connect himself with the nation:
- “The words I spoke today are not so different from the oath that is taken each time a soldier signs up for duty,”
- “You and I, as citizens,” (repeated twice) with “common effort and common purpose.”
From Prose to Poetry
Following the President’s address, poet Richard Blanco continued this theme of connecting the individual with the nation in his poem One Today, painting a very personal picture that resonated with many (italics below are my own):
- “One sun rose on us today,”
- “One ground. Our ground,”
- “One wind – our breath,”
- “We head home…under one sky, our sky.”
- Most strikingly, the poem began with the word “one” and ended with the word “together.”
I pondered this idea of many individuals, connected together in past and present – especially as I made my way through the crowd after the Inauguration Ceremony in our nation’s Capital. I thought about my personal place in it, as a recent newcomer who had the honor of performing American folk songs for friends and former classmates at the Harvard-Princeton Inaugural Ball just a few days before.
And later on, as I stood together with another cheering crowed waiting for the President to appear at the Commander in Chief’s Inaugural Ball, I noticed the seal of the President displayed on the stage. I saw the words “e pluribus unum” written above the eagle, and the sense of connection I felt was stronger than ever.