Most 26 members are in the business of using language as a persuasive tool. What lessons (if any) can we learn from the two US presidential campaigns?
From McCain we learn that the US electorate do not just want a VP who looks like them. They want a VP who both looks like them and is capable of being VP. From Obama we learn – we hope – that tolerance and peaceful demonstration on behalf of excluded people can lead, forty years later, to genuine progress.
It’s interesting the way Obama started out being hailed as the Great Rhetorician – every speech sounded like a grand historic moment in the tradition of Kennedy or Martin Luther King. But then it was widely reported that he’d been advised to tone it down, as the electorate was starting to find him a bit too flowery and almost became suspicious of how good he was. When it came to the debates, he kept the tone much more direct and to the point, rooted in everyday language and experience. If you compare it to the world of branding (forced parallel alert), you could say Obama has learned to vary his tone of voice according to the situation and audience, while remaining a recognisable brand. And it seems to have worked (although I still have a weird feeling McCain is going to win).
Enrapturing any audience through any media is all about theatre and storytelling. We borrow theatrical devices such as suspension of belief, false perspective, notional space, chiaroscuro, bigged-up personalities and exaggerated modulation and project them into language – Martin Luther King was a master of this. The devices of storytelling – ingenious plotting, mutual conspiracy, emotional dependency, subliminal symbolism, flawed protagonists, ersatz vulnerability, inveigling metaphor and elegiac language – J F K was a master of that. And of course really infectious communications always leave the audience gasping for more…or what our industry has joyfully christened – A CALL TO ACTION!
Well, it depends on the outcome, of course. But I’m hoping for an Obama landslide because he has acted and spoken throughout with greater honesty and dignity. He’s used words to inspire people with a belief that change is possible rather than, as McCain has, to frighten people with a fear of otherness. As I write (19 days to go) McCain’s negative personal attacks seem to be backfiring and the awful Sarah Palin’s incitement of audiences to become lynch mobs seems to be counter-productive. So I believe Obama’s election will be good for America, the world and the world of words.
Given that this election is currently being lost rather than won thanks in large part to the Republicans’ connection with the banking meltdown I’d say a big fat zero. And even if there were any lesson to learn I wouldn’t want to learn them.