TLDR: The article analyzes Hakeem Jeffries’ speech, highlighting rhetorical techniques of repetition and poetic rhythm to emphasize the Democrats’ continuous efforts at bipartisanship and governance for the people.
So What? Politicians and pro wrestlers best understand classical rhetoric. That’s not a criticism… we can learn a lot about the fairly simple techniques we, as marketers, can use to engage our audience.
October, 2023. In a startling turn of events, former Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (CA 23) was removed from his position through a motion put forward by members of the Republican Party. In the following weeks, the Republicans struggled to propose a candidate palatable to the caucus.
That is, until October 25th, when the party united to elect Representative Mike Johnson (LA 4) to the position.
During the interim period, there were contentious debates regarding different candidates and the priorities of Congress to speedily elect officials that could serve the will of the people. The Democratic Speaker candidate (and Minority Leader) Hakeem Jeffries spoke often about this duty, and the willingness of those on the left to compromise on a moderate candidate.
After Johnson’s ascension to the position, Jeffries delivered a key speech on his commitment to bi-partisan efforts to continue the work of the house. In this speech, he emphasizes the necessity of unity to represent the electorate’s will. (You can watch the video below, or read the transcript here.)
Using Anaphora (Repetition) to Punctuate Meaning
Partisan politics provides a challenging rhetorical context: politicians must promote their agenda (and make themselves look better in the process) while finding ways to work with their “opponents.”
Jeffries threads this needle by emphasizing the goals and accomplishments of the Democratic Party while offering an olive branch to the Republicans in the name of good-faith governance:
“From the very beginning of this Congress, House Democrats have made clear that we will find bipartisan common ground with our Republican colleagues whenever and wherever possible for the good of the American people.
And House Democrats have repeatedly done just that.”
The term “House Democrats” then plays out over the rest of the speech. Jeffries uses his perception of Democratic accomplishments as evidence for their desire to work together to govern.
For each example Jeffries provides (from lower costs, better pay, protecting Social Security, and so on), he leads with the phrase “House Democrats…”
“House Democrats will continue to partner with President Biden and Senate Democrats to put people over politics.
House Democrats will continue to fight for lower costs, better paying jobs, safer communities and to build an economy from the middle out and the bottom up and not the top down.
House Democrats will continue to push back against extremism in this chamber and throughout the country.”
This repetitive technique is called anaphora, and it’s one of the most powerful techniques for great communicators.
Marketers can pick up on what Jeffries is doing here: by repeating “House Democrats” throughout the speech, he connects that subject with the object of the speech–namely, accomplishment. Likewise, marketers can utilize this technique to make connections and emphasize links between a brand or idea that could resonate with their audience.
Change Up the Pace to Change Audience Perceptions
Repetition is great, but Jeffries manages to take it one step further. By using this technique in different ways, he moves past the partisanship he’s speaking against to (ideally) bring members of the House together.
After starting with “House Democrats,” he moves to using the phrase “we.” In doing so, he’s stepped outside of the self-facing speech and turns it to members of the House and the country as a whole:
“We faced adversity in December 1941, when a foreign power unexpectedly struck, plunging us into a world war with the evil empire of Nazi Germany.
We faced adversity in the Deep South in the 1950s and 60s, when the country was struggling to reconcile the inherent contradictions between Jim Crow segregation and the glorious promises of the Constitution.
We faced adversity on September 11, 2001, when the Towers and the Pentagon were unexpectedly struck, killing thousands of lives in an instant.”
This move is powerful in that he invites the listener, even if they may disagree with him, to identify with him through shared challenges.
This is especially important as Jeffries also makes clear throughout the speech that there are lines the Democrats will not cross, even as they speak of bipartisanship.
Evoking Emotion with Rhythm and Alliteration
Attribution: Maryland GovPics
There are several instances of anaphora in the speech, with Jeffries using rhythm as a poetic invitation to hear his message.
Take the following passage:
“The stakes were high, as articulated by President Lincoln: we could either nobly save, or meanly lose, America as we know it, the last best hope on earth.
This is a turbulent time in the American journey.
And we have but one charge to keep during this moment of great fragility.
Our union must be sustained.
Our union must be strengthened.
Our union must succeed.”
Spoken, this only takes up a few moments. But as it is delivered, it uses anaphora and alliteration (“…sustained, strengthened, succeed”) to maintain our attention. The short, punctuated terms and alliterative phrasing create a rhythm that brings his ideas into sharp focus.
It’s often the case that we think of rhythm as an artifact of spoken language. But tempo, beats, and sound are all part of communication across a much larger scale, and marketers can use their “poetic license” to evoke emotions with audiences and make connections.
Use Classical Tools for Modern Audiences
Representative Jeffries’s techniques aren’t new–not by a long shot. The fact that we are still using them tells us that there’s something to be said about old tricks. But through repetition and poetry, he articulates a message of unity and governance in difficult times.
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