David Crystal on Obama’s rhetorical style

David Crystal has analyzed Barack Obama’s acceptance speech for rhetorical style in his blog, showing how Obama used the “rule of three” (creating vibrant triptychs), pairing, repetition, structural parallelism and the “rule of seven” (a memory-friendly number of details) to create the rhetorical drama needed to extend his listeners’ attention span and build excitement. Thanks, Jo!

Excerpts of his analysis:

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”

How did it work? How can you get people to process 41 words easily? By following some basic rules of rhetoric. One is to structure your utterance, where possible, into groups of three.

who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible,
who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time,
who still questions the power of our democracy

The other is to make sure that none of these chunks exceed what is easy to process in working memory. Psycholinguists once worked out a ‘magic rule of seven, plus or minus two’ – that most people find seven ‘bits’ of information the most they can handle at a time. (…) Here are those three who-clauses with the main information-carrying words in bold and tallied:

who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, 7
who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, 6
who still questions the power of our democracy
4

(more here)

language focus: rhetorical style

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Anne

Teaching English for business communication skills, writing online for learners, translating, sailing whenever I can, from Washington, D.C.

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