Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Elizabeth Warren Attacks Citigroup: Public Speaking Lessons to Learn from the Meme-Worthy Progessive

By Steven S. Vrooman

Elizabeth Warren is an interesting speaker. She can teach us the importance of human gestures and facial expressions, if nothing else:

She forcefully articulates leftist populism in a way that gets shared via social media more than any other Democratic politician. I take that as a sign that she is reaching her audience. To understand how that is working and what lessons we can learn from her public speaking strategy, I've analyzed one of her recent speeches in the Senate.

In this speech she specifically calls out Citigroup for its influence in American politics, which is the kind of Progressive-Era catnip that made a Huffington Post blogger suggest her as President. By the time she invokes Teddy Roosevelt, progressives are ready to share her speech on Facebook and maybe even donate to the cause.

Here are a few things she does to provoke such strong responses from her political audience.

1) Objectivity

This is not to say she is objective. Who really is? But as I describe in Chapter 14 of The Zombie Guide to Public Speaking, the central dilemma of credibility in persuasive speaking is that you must find a way to be both experienced and committed to an idea while at the same time be able to indicate that you have charitably and accurately considered the other side and respect it. How can you be objective and committed at the same time? It is a paradox that people fail so much that we just give up and preach to the choir on our cable news networks.

Warren pushes hard here on this button of objectivity. Miles Mogulescu in that Huffington Post bit thinks that this is a powerful realignment of political forces, replacing conservative and liberal with pro- and anti-corporate. There is unlikely be be a political party realignment here, but I think we should take Mogulescu's response as confirmation that she succeeded. Here's what she does starting at :38 seconds -- she says she's talked to both Democrats and Republicans. Neither like bailouts. She says she told Republicans to "vote the way they talked." So now she claims objectivity and challenges Republicans to stand up on any side of the credibility dilemma of commitment-objectivity. A neat trick. She makes this rather pointed attack on Republican honesty feel more objective by critiquing both Obama and Bush White House cronyism with Citigroup at around 1:50.

2) Rejecting "Examples"

In Part Three of the Zombie Guide, I reject the public speaking textbook lore that there really is such a thing as an example that you can use in a speech. Using an example is a trap.

An example is either a story lacking in detail or it is a list composed of only one thing (and thus a kind of hasty generalization argument in utero). It has little persuasive power (Remeber, persuasion is something that has to happen to people who don't already agree with you). It feels like you are doing actual work, but it is pointless.

Warren, starting around 1:40, begins by giving examples of important government employees who worked at Citigroup. Now, she could expand on one of these examples and tell a story of cronyism. But that may very well be slanderous. So she gets as many examples as she can and holds her hands up in a running count to turn these examples into a growing number. And boom, we have a statistic.

She statistic-izes examples later on as well, at around 4:00. It is an interesting way to solidify examples from all over the map with numbers. It is also a nice way to give the numbers on this issue, of which there are likely a practically infinite amount to choose from, some context to lead the audience toward your conclusion.

3) Figurative Arguments

Warren gives a well-written speech. Its best parts when it comes to language are the last two minutes, as it should be if she wants to leave her audience pulling for her. Although my book chapters on argument and figurative language are separate, we can see John Kennedy-esque mastery of language here that says we should, at best, do them both together. It worked in the 60s. It also works today, when Warren's quotes will end up memed onto those images of her thrusting her fingers forward:

I don't know what Michelle Bachmann is doing over there on the left. The left? Irony abounds.
It is a great language strategy. Arguments are hard to make persuasively. Figurative language of the the obvious metaphor-y kind is difficult to get away with unless you're Ronald Reagan 


or Bill Clinton.

So if you code the thrust of your argument into the structure of your language, it becomes propulsive and hard to ignore. This is the kind of grammar game that Kennedy liked to play, as with his famous "antimetabole": 

In a future blog post I'll outline some of these strategies more completely, but for now, here are a few greats from Warren:

A metonymy: "Think about that kind of power. If a financial institution has become so big and so powerful that it can hold the entire country hostage. That alone is reason enough to break them up."

Here's a harder one. She takes the basic epanalepsis (Same word at beginning and end of a clause) "Enough is enough" and turns it into a frame for an anaphora (Repetition of words at beginnings of successive clauses) series using that same phrase: "Enough is enough. Enough is enough with Wall Street insiders getting key position after key position and the kind of cronyism that we have seen in the executive branch. Enough is enough with Citigroup passing 11th hour deregulatory provisions that nobody takes ownership over but everybody will come to regret. Enough is enough."

And her last section is a long antimetabole like Kennedy's. With a portion omitted, it looks like this: "Washington already works really well for the billionaires and the big corporations and the lawyers and the lobbyists. . . . We were sent here to fight for those families. It is time, it is past time, for Washington to start working for them!"

Elizabeth Warren has well-written speeches. She delivers them well. We can learn a lot from her approach.

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