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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Return of the Coherent Speech?

Matt’s last post on the YouTube viewship (not to mention the hip-hop station listenership) of Obama’s big race speech yesterday is particularly fascinating to those of us with a background in political communications and speechwriting. Before now, there was an overwhelming conventional wisdom that the long, coherent, logically structured Political Speech was pretty much one of the biggest anachronisms in American politics.
Sure, there continue to be a few occasions–notably presidential State of the Union or Oval Office addresses, and convention acceptance speeches–where significant numbers of people actually watch, listen to, or read entire political speeches. But for the most part, politicians and speechwriters over the last couple of decades have learned to build speeches based not on the primary audience of people exposed to the whole product, but secondary audiences learning about it in print (hence the importance of the “lede”) or electronic (the genesis of “sound bites”) media, or even teritiary audiences who see or hear nothing other than media commentary or reaction by other politicians. Indeed, the recent (and believe it or not, it really is pretty recent) preoccupation by virtually every political campaign with “message” is a function of the fragmentation of political communications, even at the presidential level where more words are covered by the media more often, and campaigns have the resources to buy a lot of attention.
What Matt’s suggesting is that the new social media may be changing all that, and enabling candidates to get a broad and unflitered–in other words, primary audience–for longer and more nuanced communications that do the things soundbites or short “message” ads can’t–tell a story, address complex issues, convey a genuine sense of the candidate’s personality, and make a detailed argument.
It’s probably prudent not to get too carried away with this idea too fast. We don’t know how many of the million-plus people who’ve already downloaded Obama’s Philadelphia speech actually watched all of it. We don’t know how many of them were persuadable voters rather than Obama supporters. And we also don’t know if this is going to become a general phenomenon, or if Obama’s already-legendary speechmaking ability, and the explosive nature of yesterday’s topic, make him the exception rather than the rule.
But it all bears watching. And this is one old speechwriter who would be delighted if there’s once again room in political campaigns for logical appeals that take a while to deliver.

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