Political speeches are too reliant on human-interest stories.

I only watched President Obama’s speech and part of Senator Ernst’s response; I didn’t see any of the other many response speeches various Republicans gave.

Overall, I thought Obama’s speech was good, and Ernst’s was pathetic. And I’m not even commenting on content here; since what politicians say frequently has hardly any bearing on what they do.  I am strictly reviewing them both in terms of their rhetorical skill here.

There was one thing both of them did that I found annoying, although it’s incredibly common in political speeches, so I guess it’s unfair of me to pick on these two for it.  But I’m going to.  Politics isn’t fair.

First, in Obama’s speech, he said:

It begins with our economy.  Seven years ago, Rebekah and Ben Erler of Minneapolis were newlyweds.    She waited tables.  He worked construction…  “If only we had known,” Rebekah wrote to me last spring, “what was about to happen to the housing and construction market.”

As the crisis worsened, Ben’s business dried up, so he took what jobs he could find, even if they kept him on the road for long stretches of time… They sacrificed for each other.  And slowly, it paid off.

Now, I get what Obama’s trying to do here, rhetorically. He’s trying to take a macro point (“the economy was bad, but it is getting better”) and illustrate it using a micro-instance of two particular people.  He explicitly said this later on: “America, Rebekah and Ben’s story is our story.”

This isn’t a bad technique.  In fact, it can be a very good technique.  But it’s overused.  I think Obama uses it almost every speech he gives.  And it’s getting to be just too much of a cliche.  This isn’t a criticism of the couple’s story, by the way; I’m happy for them.  But Obama’s use of telling these stories has crossed from being a good way of making things “relate-able” to being something the audience can start tuning out, because we’ve heard this before.

Watching the State of the Union, I felt like I’ve seen this speech before. Like it’s the same speech every year. And part of it is due to that same “John Smith did XYZ, and that’s what makes America great” style.  It gets to feel like it’s formulaic.

Then we have Ernst’s speech, in which she said early on:

You see, growing up, I had only one good pair of shoes. So on rainy school days, my mom would slip plastic bread bags over them to keep them dry.

But I was never embarrassed. Because the school bus would be filled with rows and rows of young Iowans with bread bags slipped over their feet.

Again, she’s going with the same technique, although she did a much worse job than Obama of explaining the relevance of this to her point. Even if she had though, it would really make for compelling imagery. As it was, she reminded me of Governor Bobby Jindal’s awful State of the Union response from a few years ago.
I’m sure this technique of telling these little stories to illustrate the point was useful, back in the days when politicians would give dry speeches full of numbers and such.  It made your speech stand out.  But now, it’s such a common thing that it’s gotten to be overused, and when something is overused, people don’t pay attention to it.  I suspect a drier, more statistics-filled speech would get more attention (not to mention being better suited to Ernst’s speaking style).

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