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Speechwriters Deliberately Use Rhythm To Help Make Their Point


A gentle rhythm can calm us. A thumping beat can get our bodies moving. And an insistent, deliberate, meter can motivate us. All week we've been hearing about the ways different rhythms affect us. This morning we turn to the rhythms of speech specifically political speech. NPR's Ari Shapiro has heard a lot of speeches having covered the White House for four years. He has this story on the role that rhythm plays in President Obama's political speeches.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: President Obama's speech writers rarely talk publicly about rhythm and cadence. But they think about it all the time.

JON FAVREAU: That first paragraph we actually figured out in our heads, like, we want this many beats.

SHAPIRO: This is Jon Favreau. He was Barack Obama's head speechwriter until a year ago, and he's talking about the victory speech Obama gave the night of the Iowa caucuses in January 2008.

FAVREAU: So that first sentence was, they said this day would never come.

SHAPIRO: Eight syllables - poets would say four iambs - a one, a two, a three, a four.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: They said this day would never come.

SHAPIRO: And then the second sentence was, they said our sights were set too high.

SHAPIRO: Same pattern - bah dump, bah dump, bah dump, bah dump.


OBAMA: They said our sights were set too high.

SHAPIRO: A few more lines like that - building and building.

FAVREAU: And then it finally said, at this day, in this moment, blah, blah, blah.


OBAMA: We are one people, and our time for change has come.

SHAPIRO: Obama's best political speeches get people on their feet, chanting a rhythmic refrain.


SHAPIRO: In 2011 it was, pass this bill. A couple of years earlier it was, yes we can.


CROWD: Yes we can. Yes we can.

FAVREAU: One of the wonderful things about rhythm is that when you're involved with a rhythm you take on a beat other than your own.

SHAPIRO: Rob Kapilow is a composer and conductor who often writes about music. He says rhythm can actually create community. Think about a crowd chanting in unison at a football game - or people on a dance floor moving to a pulsing beat.

ROB KAPILOW: For a moment we stop being ourselves, and we all become part of a powerful group. And I think we're all looking for that opportunity to step outside of a me and become a we.

SHAPIRO: For politicians, this can be an incredibly powerful tool. A great speech won't just give people information - it will compel them to act. Every political speechwriter appreciates that this depends not only on what you say but on how you say it.

MARY KATE CARY: There's a certain poetry to great speeches.

SHAPIRO: Mary Kate Cary was a speechwriter for the first President Bush. She says Obama may have a unique cadence, but every president tries to find the rhythm in a good speech. She remembers putting markings in the text to help her boss from the tempo.

CARY: You know, forward-slashes and back-slashes and arrows up and arrows down and things like that to show when to speed up or slow down the cadence of the speech.


PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH: Halfway around the world, we are engaged in a great struggle in the skies and on the seas and sands. We know why we're there. We are Americans.

SHAPIRO: That was George Bush's 1991 State of the Union Address during the first Gulf War. Linguist John McWhorter of Columbia University says one reason Obama has a different rhythm from other presidents has to do with his race. McWhorter says the cadence of African-American speech finds its way into Obama's oration.

JOHN MCWHORTER: It's the casual speech of black, American people which goes back a very long time, and that's part of the church, that's part of the street, that's part of being a real person for most black Americans in the United States.

SHAPIRO: McWhorter says the rhythm of a great speech can give people a sense of order in a life of chaos. It sets up a pattern that listeners can anticipate and follow.

MCWHORTER: The fact that there is rhythm in that way is very stirring to any listener, just like we all like music - and that's what rhythm does. It gives you that sense of expectation which is satisfied. It's very human. It's very primal in its way. But it certainly works in a speech.

SHAPIRO: Given that Obama and his speechwriters pay so much attention to rhythm, it seems obvious that something like this would've happened eventually.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) It was a creed written into the founding documents. That declared the destiny of a nation of yes we can.

SHAPIRO: Speechwriter Jon Favreau says back in 2008, the music video took him completely by surprise.

FAVREAU: That was one of the more surreal moments. I woke up and someone's like, will.i.am turned that speech into a song.

SHAPIRO: Then he watched the YouTube video and Favreau says when he heard the speech set to music it made perfect sense. Ari Schapiro, NPR News.


MAN: (Singing) Yes we can.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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