The State Of The Union Address Is The Ultimate Master Class In Public Speaking

Learn advanced–yet simple–speaking techniques likes anaphora, anapest, and chiasmus by breaking down last night’s State of the Union address (don’t worry, we’ll explain).



After listening to President Obama’s State of the Union (SOTU), I am once again reminded of how powerful delivery skills can be. We can debate whether style trumps substance or vice versa all we want. The truth is that leaders–political and business–who are able to connect emotionally with their stakeholders will win hearts and minds and those who don’t, won’t.  

Candidates who come across forcefully, who look and sound like they believe what they’re saying, who display passion, will get our attention and, ultimately, our votes.

It means that Obama has a huge advantage going into this year’s election, as he did in 2008. It means that Newt Gingrich will continue to appeal to primary voters. And it means that Mitt Romney has a lot of work to do. 


But it isn’t only presentation skills that make for good speech. Rhetorical devices and flourishes also have a big role in fostering connection, increasing impact, and helping us remember what has been said. In fact, if you examine my previous paragraph, you’ll note my use of a rhetorical device known as known as anaphora, the repetition of an opening word or phrase in successive sentences. The effect is mesmerizing, even hypnotic. Obama used anaphora repeatedly in the SOTU:

  1. No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important. 
  2. We bet on American workers. We bet on American ingenuity. (See parallelism below.)
  3. To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn. (See parallelism below.)
  4. It was wrong. It was irresponsible.  (See parallelism below.)
  5. I will not back down from protecting our kids from mercury poisoning, or making sure that our food is safe and our water is clean. I will not go back to the days when health insurance companies had unchecked power to cancel your policy, deny your coverage, or charge women differently than men. And I will not go back to the days when Wall Street was allowed to play by its own set of rules. 
  6. We will stand against violence and intimidation. We will stand for the rights and dignity of all human beings. We will support policies that lead to strong and stable democracies and open markets, because tyranny is no match for liberty. And we will safeguard America’s own security against those who threaten our citizens, our friends, and our interests.  

(Note: Anaphora works best in series of three, and for some reason, many of Obama’s uses occurred in twos, leaving us hanging, waiting for that third one.)

Here are some of the other rhetorical “rules” the President followed:

  1. Anapest is a form of metrical foot, a pattern of word and syllable stress that creates a rhythm of two unstressed words or syllables followed by one stressed word or syllable (da da DA): “The opPOnents of ACtion are OUT of exCUses.” 
  2. Tricolon is a series of three parallel words or clauses: “No bailouts, no handouts, and no copouts.” This phrase also incorporates anaphora and a bit of anapest and alliteration.
  3. Chiasmus is a verbal pattern in which the second half of an expression is balanced against the first with the parts reversed. “Ask yourselves what you can do to bring jobs back to your country, and your country will do everything we can to help you succeed.” (This is a clear rip-off of JFK’s famous “Ask not…” line, but not nearly as clever or effective.)
  4. Antithesis establishes a contrasting relationship between two ideas: “It is time to turn our unemployment system into a reemployment system…” and “It’s time to stop rewarding businesses that ship jobs overseas, and start rewarding companies that create jobs right here in America.”
  5. Metaphor uses a familiar or tangible image to represent something else: “…none of this can happen unless we also lower the temperature in this town.”
  6. Parallelism is a recurring syntax that equalizes the importance of each phrase: “We bet on American workers. We bet on American ingenuity.” And, “It was wrong. It was irresponsible.”

These are only a few of the many rhetorical devices that can make a speech much more effective and persuasive. We may like to think of ourselves as purely rational, only influenced by policy prescriptions or metrics, but that thinking is precisely what trips us up when it comes time to vote. To make the right decision, to select the best candidate for this incredibly important job, we must have the best information. Sharpening our understanding of how they say what they say will only add to our ability to decide.


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About the author

Ruth Sherman, M.A., is a strategic communications consultant focusing on preparing business leaders, politicians, celebrities, and small business entrepreneurs to leverage critical public communications including keynote speeches, webcasts, investor presentations, road shows, awards presentations, political campaigns and media contact. Her clients hail from the A-list of international business including General Electric, JP Morgan (NY, London, Frankfurt), Timex Group, Deloitte and Dubai World