When Joe Biden spoke directly to the American people on live TV last week to accept the Democratic nomination to be President, he knew he had a decisive opportunity persuade people… He did not waste it… With millions of undecided voters glued to their TVs, Biden gave a masterclass in strategic public speaking, addressing the nation as if he were speaking to just one person. But what else made it such an effective speech? Look now as we dissect what he said and examine the devices he used to drive his message home.
What he did not do
At no point did Biden resort to name-calling when attacking his opponent. In fact, He did not even mention President Donald Trump by name. Instead, he expertly used rhetoric and contrast to make people think for themselves. This was a smart tactic. It gave viewers the tools they needed to come to the desired conclusion without resorting to ramming opinions down their necks. After all, people do not like being told what to think.
Biden borrowed heavily from religion, repeatedly using the contrast of darkness and light. He also referred to a battle for the “soul of our nation”. This device created a dog-whistle effect for people of faith, while not alienating non-believers who were free to interpret it as a metaphor. As we know, many Americans prefer to see the world in binary terms, so this was a clear call to choose a side.
People often talk about the tone of a speech, but this one had many tones, expertly interwoven to project a three-dimensional image of the whole man. There was respect, empathy, humility and conviction. There was also a tone of reconciliation for an apparently divided country as he promised to “heal, to reform, to unite”. However, the overriding tone, the one he returned to again and again, was one that incapsulated optimism, vision, hope, and belief.
Through regular use of contrast, Biden juxtaposed the status quo with his vision for the future. This device was used to cover racial inequality and the distribution of wealth, among many other issues. At one point he told Americans “We don’t need a tax code that rewards wealth more than it rewards work”. This was a direct swipe at the perceived excesses of corporate America. This choice may have given the listener an overly simplistic binary choice about where they stand on the issue. Nevertheless, it was a powerful strategy because Biden already knows the side on which most fair-minded Americans will come down. Earlier in the speech he used a similar tactic to emphasise the choice Americans must make, saying: “character is on the ballot, compassion is on the ballot, decency, science, democracy – they’re all on the ballot.” Powerful indeed.
Empathy was obviously high on the speech’s checklist as the presidential nominee capitalised on the current President’s apparent lack of empathy regarding the suffering caused by COVID-19. He used his well-publicised experience of bereavement to appeal to families who feel the federal state does not understand or care about the magnitude of their loss. He said: “I have some idea about how it feels to lose someone you love. I know that deep black hole that opens up in the middle of your chest and you feel like you’re being sucked into it.” These sentences were no-doubt penned to obtain an emotional response from the listener. This is effective because we are all ultimately controlled by our emotions, which often trigger us to make important choices.
The Democrats are often portrayed as less strong on the economy, so how did Biden deal with this? Simple. He tied the health of the economy to the struggle against COVID-19. In short, beating COVID-19 equals beating economic turmoil. He also talked about the middle class, which is a group he has spent much of his career working to grow. Importantly, ascending to the middle class represents a life goal for millions of aspirational voters.
Family counts for a lot in the US. Indeed, it is the cornerstone of social stability that transcends all ethnic and political groups. Biden spoke at length about the influence of his father and his love for his children. This was another big tick in the box for voters. He also identified with veterans and their families by reminding viewers that his late son was a veteran of the Iraq War – another base covered.
A bi-partisan candidate?
Borrowing from the Obama/Clinton playbook, Biden sought to define himself as the candidate who would govern for the whole of America. He dismissed the idea of division caused by red states and blue states, emphasising the importance of the UNITED States… He pledged to reach across the aisle to moderate Republicans and govern in the interests of everybody. Bi-partisan support is an area where President Trump is seen as especially weak, so by casting himself as the candidate who can transcend party allegiances, he exploited this weakness masterfully.
When he spoke about his running mate, Kamala Harris, Biden skilfully interwove her story with the aspirational spirit of the American Dream – America being the land of opportunity, where everything is possible if you work hard enough. By doing this he accredited her with America’s core characteristics and values, and associated himself with those revered attributes as well.
Biden used the phrase “profound responsibility” to tell viewers that he understands the gravity of the office he seeks. He also quoted the constitution – the nation’s most revered document – to emphasise that his values are indivisible from America’s values. This approach was designed to implicitly make Donald Trump appear irresponsible and disrespectful by the inevitable contrasts people will draw. Again, he did not get his hands dirty by slinging mud… He also used patriotism to his advantage, saying about COVID-19: “We’ll have a national mandate to wear a mask. Not as a burden, but as a patriotic duty to protect one another.” These words were spoken with conviction sometimes bordering on righteous anger.
The sign off
When analysing a speech, it is important to consider what the speaker intended you to feel right at the very end. Again, Biden invokes the divine, which is not unusual for a US politician. He said: “May God protect you…”. But it is what he said next that is revealing, which was: “… and may God protect our troops”. OK, maybe you didn’t see that coming. “May God bless you and may God bless the United States of America” would have been more traditional. So why “protect” and why “our troops”? Well, “protect”, because, in his submission, the nation is in great peril from COVID-19. And troops? This may be a way of again associating himself with veterans and their families, but more importantly casting himself as a Commander-in-Chief in waiting. It is undoubtedly patriotic and performs some heavy lifting on this issue of defence, which has long been an angle of attack for his party’s opponents.
Joe Biden was able to use many powerful devices to good effect, largely because he faces an opponent who is seen as weak on many of the issues that matter. The phrase ‘home-run’ was used repeatedly by commentators across the US news media to describe what he had accomplished. The speech was even received warmly by conservative-leaning Fox News. However, it may not have fared so well if his opponent had been different. Nevertheless, Biden can only aim to beat the candidate put in front of him, and with this speech at least, he hit all the right notes.
You can watch the full speech by clicking here