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19 January 2009

Setting the benchmark

Tomorrow in Washington Barak Obama will make a speech that may become the most watched speech in history. It isn’t a debate as there won’t be a reply speech, unless you are watching it on Fox news then you never know. However it will be the only speech most people will see this year and could therefore set a benchmark on good speeches in the public mind and, unfortunately, in the mind of next year's in-take of first year debaters.

For such a critical speech its long term success is normally gauged not by it's specific details (as would be more the case in Debating) but by its ability to address the wider challenges of the time. John F. Kennedy’s and Franklin Roosevelt's speeches were both written at a cross roads in American, and World history. Yet interestingly both are probably remembered for 10 or so words. Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you” and Roosevelt’s “only thing we have to fear is fear itself” have entered into the popular imagination yet beyond those 5 seconds little is remembered from the speech.

Obama has a reputation for good speeches and rhetoric. Because of this public expectation will be very high (certainly far higher than the mark Bush had to reach 8 years ago). Personally I’m not sure that Obama gave a really good speech between his convention speech in 2004 and the acceptance speech at the 2008 convention speech. Over the course of the election he gave a number of good speeches culminating with the election night victory speech which I felt was his best so far. Whoever wrote that speech (presidents and presidential candidates rarely write their own speeches) knew the right balance between imagery (“huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world”) message (“We may not get there in one year or even in one term”) and sound bites (“at this defining moment change has come to America” and “our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared”).

Obama has also made much of the link between this moment and other historical figures also known for their oratory. His speech tomorrow will be compared not only with Kennedy and Roosevelt but with the likes of Martin Luther King (e.g. “I have a dream”) and Abraham Lincon (Gettysburg). If he follows the pattern of the victory speech it is likely that he may refer to all four of these historical figures either directly or by weaving elements of their speeches into his speech. Given the emphasis in recent days on celebrating the memory of Martin Luther King I expect we will hear “a dream” and “promised land” in prominent positions in the speech.

If you want to see transcripts of past presidential speeches then visit. . If you are really bored and looking for something to do why not play reference bingo. Listen to the speech and look out for direct or indirect references to speeches made by Kennedy, Lincon, Roosevelt and King. Triple points if anyone finds a reference to a speech made by Bush…..

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