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How to hammer a point home

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Winston Churchill once said, "If you have an important point to make, don't try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then comeback and hit it again. Then hit it a third time - a tremendous whack." But many people fail to do this. They make their point once and assume the audience has 'got' it. But this is a mistake. Your central message needs to be hammered home several times, and in several different ways

Churchill on how to hammer a point home

The first thing anybody planning a speech or presentation needs to do is identify her main objective. Basic and obvious, yes. But often overlooked. A good way to do this is to write down, "At the end of my presentation/speech, I want the audience to (blank) " and then fill in the blank. Now you might want them to do something or to think something, but either way you'll fill it with a verb such as know / understand / implement / approve / buy / do / agree / realize.

And then you have to ask yourself what you have to say or how you have to phrase your argument so that's what they end up thinking.

As an illustration, let's look at President Obama's Fiscal 2014 Budget Speech. He knows that his opponents' response to whatever he says will be predictably dismissive. So it seems to me that his version of the above exercise was probably, "At the end of my speech, I want the American people to ..... a) Blame the GOP for the Sequester; b) View them as the real obstacle to progress over deficit reduction (and then - hopefully - punish them in the upcoming mid-term elections); and c) View me as moderate, reasonable and open to compromise."

Because that seems to have been his aim in his Second Inaugural plus the 2013 SOTU, and is becoming a recurring theme. As a non-American (and non-political expert) observing the US political scene, I'm struck by the apparent success President Obama has in positioning himself as the voice of moderation compared with his unreasonable, intransigent opponents in the ongoing debate over deficit reduction. All of his speeches nowadays use the same central argument of 'reasonable, flexible me vs intransigent, obstinate them'.

There's a transcript of the speech with all the rhetorical devices highlighted and named, but I've also highlighted all references to this 'reasonable me vs unreasonable them' argument in blue. Republicans claim that the slew of newspaper articles positioning the Fiscal 2014 Budget as something that has 'enraged both left and right' (and which, therefore, must be middle-of-the road), is all part of this exercise.

First of all, he positions the Budget as a model of moderation, describing it as:

  • " (A) fiscally responsible blueprint for middle-class jobs and growth."
  • something that "stabilize(s) our finances ...... in a balanced and responsible way, a way that most Americans prefer.
  • "... this budget answers that argument" (between cuts and expenditure)

Secondly, he distances himself from the Sequester and blames the GOP for it (despite Republicans insisting that it was his idea in the first place), referring to it as "... foolish across-the-board spending cuts that are already hurting our economy." He says, ..."our economy is poised for progress -- as long as Washington doesn’t get in the way," but here 'Washington' doesn't mean 'Government'; it means 'Republicans.' He also says:

  • "Frankly, the American people deserve better than what we’ve been seeing: a shortsighted, crisis-driven decision-making, like the reckless, across-the-board spending cuts that are already hurting a lot of communities ..."
  • "... the people I feel for are the people who are directly feeling the pain of these cuts -- the people who can least afford it."
  • " (This) budget replaces these cuts with smarter ones, making long-term reforms, eliminating actual waste and programs we don’t need anymore."

All of the above position the planned cuts as being nothing to do with him.

Thirdly, his tax changes (NB: always referred to as reforms rather than increases) are positioned as being reasonable and aimed at the wealthiest sector of society:

  • (I'm) "... asking the wealthiest Americans to begin paying their fair share."
  • "... the wealthiest individuals and biggest corporations cannot keep taking advantage of loopholes and deductions that most Americans don’t get."

Finally, he pleads for compromise, positioning the GOP as the obstacle to progress:

  • " ...the compromise I offered Speaker Boehner at the end of last year"
  • "I don’t believe that all these ideas are optimal, but I’m willing to accept them as part of a compromise."
  • "I’ve already met Republicans more than halfway ......I hope that Republicans will come forward and demonstrate that they’re really as serious about the deficits and debt as they claim to be.
  • "(We need to) come together, have a serious, reasoned debate -- not driven by politics -- and come together around common sense and compromise."

Read a full transcript of the speech with the above sections highlighted in blue, and the rhetorical devices used both identified and explained.

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