Thursday, January 13, 2011

Obama's Speech: An Initial Look

I'm postponing for a day or two my promised (threatened?) thoughts on how to talk about how and why the Arizona shooting stands in a particular symbolic relationship to larger events.  In the wake of President Obama's speech last night, I've been thinking quite a bit about why it was as effective as it was (already being touted as one for the history books). 

My guess is that there will be plenty of panels at the National Communication Association convention next year (as well as many other presentations and journal articles) devoted to looking not only at Obama's speech from any number of perspectives, but in comparison with the statement from Sarah Palin issued hourse before.

I'll take an initial stab at that tomorrow, but I wanted to pass along a bit of quick-and-dirty rhetorical analysis that appeared in todays Guardian.  They did a word count on the number of times specific words showed up in each speech and the percentage of the total text that this represented.

This is one fairly common way of getting an initial handle on a rhetorical text, and there's even a computer program (Diction, created by Roderick Hart) that is designed to do this in some depth.  It's a way of quantifying what is usually fuzzy, qualitative stuff.  It certainly has its limits, and it's never (in my opinion) an end in itself, but it can help out.

In the case of the two speeches, one thing that hit me just as a listener was confirmed by the Guardian's analysis: Obama's speech was far more human than was Palin's.  As the analysis shows, Obama used personal pronouns far more than did Palin (e.g., he, she, her, his, etc.).  Tellingly, the only personal pronoun that featured more prominently in Palin's speech than Obama's was "I."

Obama also used other words that evoke a sense of humanity (e.g., people, hearts, lives) and the victim's names (particularly "Gabby" and "Christina"). 

The Guardian used the online application, Wordle, to create a visualization of the words used in the speeches (the bigger the word, the more frequently it appeared in the text).  A cursory glance shows the difference in tone.

Without getting into armchair psychoanalysis of the motives behind these differences in word choice, simply as a matter of objective analysis, Obama's speech relied more heavily on the language that focused on humanity. 

There are many other reasons why Obama's speech worked as well as it did (I'll talk about this a bit tomorrow), but even something as simple as looking at the actual words used gives us an indication of why it succeeded, while Palin's speech was received much more coldly.


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