The Delivery Is the Message: the Podium Design of Obama’s DNC Speech

August 2008 was an eventful month in Denver, a city where I lived for the past 17 years. The Democratic National Convention (DNC) came to town, and the convention site was literally a block from my workplace. As a Democrat, the event brought much excitement and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see rhetoric in action. I eagerly awaited day 5, when Obama would be delivering his acceptance speech. But on that night I had to teach a first-year writing class. It was the very first class of the semester. After teaching I sped downtown to the DNC site but missed most of the speech. Though disappointed, I knew I could go home and watch the whole thing on YouTube. Knowing this gave me much peace of mind.

In the 21st century, the nature of large-scale public address has drastically changed from ancient times. Oral speeches—what classical rhetoricians such as Isocrates, Plato, and Aristotle had in mind when they thought about rhetoric—are always “live,” thanks to television, Tivo, and the web. Technology is the principal medium that circulates speeches to the public. Unlike ancient times, audience needs not be present to hear the content. But technology not only made speeches more available/accessible (to those who have and *can* access to gadgets) than ever, it also changed the practice and nature of political speech making: It turned speech into a visual/oral event. Large-scale political addresses like the one Obama orated are no longer only meant to be heard; it is designed to be seen. This means that the act of delivering speeches is no longer just about voice, gestures, costume—“performance”—of the speaker. Delivery now involves elaborate scenery and music—in other words, staging. It will help to see some examples from the DNC, before I launch them, let me briefly touch on the notion of delivery in Greek rhetoric so that we can see how it drastically differs from what I’m trying to point out.

In Rhetoric Aristotle didn’t touch much upon delivery because he relegated it as a matter of acting.  Here’s what he said about it: “It is a matter of how the voice should be used in expressing each emotion, sometimes loud and sometimes soft or intermediate, how the pitch accents should be entoned, whether as acute, grave, or circumflex, and what rhythms should be expressed…Delivery seems a vulgar matter when rightly understood” (Book III, Ch. 1). Roman rhetoricians, Cicero and Quntillian, gave more attention to delivery, stressing how it could impact the speaker’s character, audience’s per/reception, and persuasiveness. But all in all, delivery in classical times focused on the physicality of the speaker: his voice, gesture, attire and appearance.

These issues continue to be important in political speeches in the 21st century. Obama strategically used intonation, pitch, and stance to enhance his credibility and identity at the DNC. (Click here for video.) But what I want to focus on here is the prop aspect of Obama’s delivery. Take a look at these images:

Image 1

Image 2

Image 3

The podium from where Obama spoke was strategically designed to make him appear  experienced, “in charge,” and authoritative. The stage set looked like the White House. Everything from the background, the blue carpet to the 50 stars circling the podium boosted Obama’s presidential quality or to use a rhetoric term ethos (identity, character, image). The set conveyed meanings; it delivered an argument: Obama’s ready and got what it takes to be the president. In sum, the set became an available mean of persuasion. (I remember Chris Matthews saying that the stage design was deliberately done to negate claims that Obama is inexperienced and too young to be Commander in Chief. That is, some thought he doesn’t appear presidential.) No wonder Democrats were willing to pay $140,000 for it, according to Weekly Standard.

Given that we live in a visual/oral culture, when listening to large-scale political speeches, we can’t simply ignore the “staging” aspect of the discourse. Delivery is now more than about wearing a certain suit, holding a certain posture, or enunciating a certain pitch. It’s also about stage set and props. It is now more about acting than ever, sorry Aristotle. Thus, next time when you see/listen to a political speech, pay attention to the background and the place where the speaker is speaking. Don’t just focus on the verbal content (what the Greeks called logos). In the 21st century, delivery isn’t just a method for conveying a message—it is the message.

P.S. composition teachers, when teaching rhetorical analysis, encourage students to go beyond analyzing the logos. Guide them to pay attention to delivery. This will help them develop multiliteracy skills  (New London Group, 1996) too.

References:

Aristotle. (1991). Rhetoric. (George Kennedy, Trans.). New York: Oxford University Press.

New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66, 60-92.



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3 Responses to The Delivery Is the Message: the Podium Design of Obama’s DNC Speech

  1. Jim Porter says:

    Great rhetorical analysis. “Staging” strikes me a really important concept related to rhetorical delivery: the scene or backdrop of a speech (which is not only visual but also physical and aural). Part of staging, too, often involves the people who line up behind you … for instance, when congressional reps speak out on issues, they make sure to have certain people behind them: it’s part of the stage but also for ethos purposes (e.g., Sarah Palin is part of “staging” for many candidates this election season). (Note: You can insert those images as Media items by first uploading them to the RhetHistoria Media Library, and then using the distinct Media Library URL to link them into your essay.)

  2. Pingback: Rhetoric on the Road | RhetHistoria

  3. mwatts1280 says:

    Thanks for this post, Chanon, and for jogging my memory back to 2008 when talk of what it meant to “look presidential” was all the rage. At the time, I remember struggling to pinpoint what exactly commentators meant when they said that Obama looked presidential, a descriptor thrown around repeatedly to characterize then-candidate Obama’s appearance during the election year. If my memory serves me correctly, a president should look cool, calm, collected. Those were the words I heard over and over again during the analyses that followed the 2008 presidential debates. The president should have a relaxed upper body. I remember McCain getting flack in the media for not being able to fully extend his arms, a result of an injury I believe. Looking presidential also means giving eye contact to your audience and relaxing your eyebrows. Once again, McCain received criticism for this during the debates, and Obama was praised for his eye contact and warm facial expressions. As you point out, looking presidential also involves having the correct props and staging. Clearly, Obama’s appearance at the DNC is the ultimate example of crafting an image, but even when I saw him speak at a high school in Asheville, NC, I was struck by the choreography behind the appearance. There was a pre-show leading up to his speech, and when he made his way to the podium onstage, he was the lone figure wearing white among an army of important looking men in black suits. They had a secret service air about them. Obama looked—well—presidential, whatever that means.

    Somewhere hidden behind our obsession with visuals–looking presidential–lies the reality that Obama also sounded presidential. I find it interesting that although many stressed Obama’s impressive speaking ability, they still spoke of his presidential ethos in terms of appearance, looking a certain way. I wonder if there is a relationship between our obsession with print text, as opposed to orality, and the fact that we oftentimes focus on what we see as opposed to what we hear, Obama “looking” presidential as opposed to sounding presidential…

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