Reputation lost, reputation won: Lessons from Aristotle and Barack Obama. Ronel Rensburg on Rhetoric and Public Relations. A South African Perspective.

Ronel Rensburg

While watching the acceptance speech (“This is your victory”) by Barack Obama upon winning the presidential race in Chicago, I experienced a long-forgotten feeling of excitement towards political rhetoric as well as a stirring of new-found hope for the USA and the rest of the world.
In the presence of hundreds of thousands of people in awe, history was made and lessons were learnt of how communication and public speaking ought to be utilised by countries and individual leaders to create and maintain good reputations.

Whereas I adored America and all that it stood for as a young student, this positive appraisement changed during my later years.
I began to cultivate a more neutral to negative disposition towards the recipes of Hollywood, obese people, junk food, precocious children, huge gas consuming vehicles, the thinly-veiled sanctimoniousness of the bible-belt folk, electronic churches, horrific serial killers, prescriptive sitcoms, soap operas and the so-called power of positive thinking.
And after John F Kennedy, I did not fancy any American president until Ronald Reagan made his entrance.
The great communicator became a popular example to use in my lectures to students in illustrating the power of speechmaking and the excellent use of contemporary oratory.
The content of some of his speeches had at times been without real substance, but he always left us with the impression that most often it is not what is said, but how it is being communicated, that captures the imagination of the populace.
Then in the most recent years came George Bush junior, unquestionably the greatest global village idiot the world has ever encountered.
This politician will in times to come surely be regarded as a perfect example of how a political speech should not be presented – both in content and delivery.

Rhetoric and particularly how it is utilised in political speechmaking, has been a fascinating phenomenon throughout the centuries of human existence.
We still marvel in the famous speeches that contained real flair and the impact that these speeches had on the mindsets of the time.
Rhetoric has a long history.
The first textbook on speechmaking was probably that of Kegemini and Ptahhotep of Egypt in approximately 2600 BC, but it has been the Greek and Roman philosophers that gave the art of speechmaking its actual status.
Speechmaking was also one of the first of three academic areas included in the first formal curriculum, the Trivium, of the Middle Ages.

Today speechmaking continues to serve as one of our most important means of communication.
We employ speechmaking for personal expression, to transmit information, to make others aware of innovations, to influence attitudes and behaviour, to highlight ceremonial events, and to entertain.
And although modern electronic media have taken over the world and people find themselves wired-up and more connected than ever before, the art of speechmaking is still important.
The ability to communicate well stays current – especially when it comes to the leaders in society.

When we take a step back into history, many groundbreaking and world-altering speeches come to mind:
In 431 BC an eminent Athenian politician called Pericles, presented a funeral oration, one of many speeches made by him.
In 399 BC the Greek philosopher Plato delivered the apology by Socrates, in which Socrates defends himself against the charges by the state of being a man who corrupted the young, did not believe in the gods, and created new deities, and was therefore condemned to death by the authorities of the time and forced to drink poison.
During 63 BC the Catillian Orations delivered by Marcus Tulius Cicero (at the time consul of Rome), exposing to the Roman Senate the plot by Lucius Catilina and his forces to overthrow the Roman government, became very famous.
The Sermon on the Mount, delivered by Jesus Christ in 30 AD still today inspires Christians all over the world.

War, strife, conflict and disaster are perfect platforms for religious, social and political oratory.

In 1588 Elizabeth I of England gave her famous uplifting speech to her troops at Tilburg when England was expecting to be invaded by the great Spanish Armada.
Napoleon Bonaparte presented a memorable speech, “Farewell to the Old Guard” in 1814.
One of the most memorable presentations and still spine-chillingly current today, is the Gettysburg speech made by Abraham Lincoln on 19 November 1863.
The speech (only two minutes in duration) firmly expressed the American democratic ideal and is considered to be one of the greatest examples of masterful oratory.
This powerful presentation also cemented the principles of modern democracy in America.
Winston Churchill will always be remembered for his witty remarks, mastery of the English language and speeches during World War II (“Their finest hour” – 1940; “Blood, sweat and tears” – 1940; “Iron curtain” – 1946).

These speeches are mostly appraised from a Western world perspective.

However, there are numerous memorable speeches made by leaders from the East and the Middle East.
Mahatma Gandhi will forever be remembered for his odes to nonviolent resistance to bring about change.
From an Islam world perspective, the world fearfully sat up straight while listening to the rather unfamiliar delivery (to the western ear) by Saddam Hussein of his “The mother of all battles” in the early 1990’s, alerting the infidels of what is about to hit them.

The literary genius of William Shakespeare gave a solid place to the power of oratory in his plays about great historical leaders: There is the speech by Mark Antony in Julius Caesar (Act 3, Scene 3 – “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears…”). And of course there is also an often-used extract from Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark’s speech (Act 3, Scene 1 – “To be or not to be – that is the question”).

Some of the speeches made by political leaders are not only powerful in form and content, but also wise indicators of the inevitability of things to come.
So was the “Winds of change” speech made by Harold Macmillan in South Africa in 1960 – sending strong warning signals against the political regime in South Africa of that period.
A famous (or rather notorious at the time and given the circumstances) presentation by a woman, was the speech of Susan B Anthony in 1873, on women’s right to vote.
The world has since come to realise the significance of her message.
John F Kennedy delivered his well-known speech in Berlin, “Ich bin ein Berliner” in 1963.

Closer to home, the world took notice for the first time of a South African activist called Nelson Mandela when he delivered a message before serving time for high treason.
The “I am prepared to die…” message eluded the world (and fellow South Africans) to the fact that there were significant anti-apartheid feelings in the country.
And will South Africans ever forget the disastrous “Rubicon” speech made by PW Botha!
Former President Thabo Mbeki’s speech “I am an African” was well written and presented in 1996.
It will perhaps go down in history as a speech of “cerebral” nature.

Margaret Thatcher will fill her place (deservedly as an efficient public speaker and feisty politician) in the gallery of world leaders. Her speech:”This lady is not for turning” made headlines and earned her the name of the Iron Lady.

Arguably the best example of contemporary oratory (in my opinion) is the speech made by Dr Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960’s shortly before his assassination.
The content and delivery of “I have a dream” are second to none and re-established the American democratic ideals echoed by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg address.

Another more ceremonial address that caught the imagination of the whole world, is the eulogy to Princess Diana delivered by her brother Charles, Earl Spencer at her funeral in 1997.
The content consisted of raw and earthy as well as sublime imagery to describe the haunted life of his sister.
Spencer delivered the eulogy eloquently and brought tears to millions of eyes on that particular day.

There were and of course will be many others that will grace the public speaking halls of fame, as well as the public speaking halls of shame in the years to come.
There have been famous politicians and other leaders who will also be remembered – in some cases not fondly – for their powerful speechmaking.

Adolf Hitler comes to mind. Although Hitler will go down in history as a monster, he was one of the first political leaders that utilised – to his benefit – the gestalt of persuasive techniques available to powerful speechmaking. He combined the zeitgeist of Germany of that period; the imagery of greatness; archetypes of the German people; extreme love for the fatherland; the ideal of an Arian race; a sense of celebration; intense and melodramatic delivery; repetition of doctrines; the inclusion of verbal and nonverbal communication techniques, and the unnerving music of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss to add effect. In short Hitler delivered (with the assistance of his propaganda master Goebbels) strikingly choreographed occasions where he succeeded in regimenting the public mind with his ideas for a Third Reich.

Here in South Africa we also had such a fanatic political leader in the form of Eugene Terre’ Blanche, who recited poetry and spoke in brilliant Afrikaans about the plight of the Boerevolk until he foamed at the mouth. He will be remembered as a charismatic speaker, particularly for his emotional delivery.

The world is vast and the leaders in this world are many.
We either remember them forever or forget them easily.
We remember them for the things that they do and the legacies that they leave behind.
Mostly we remember them through their public images and reputations, how they appeared and spoke on podiums or on our television sets.
We are often impressed, but even more often disappointed in what we hear and see.

Then on a clear evening in November 2008, a black American politician and the next president of the United States of America, Barack Obama, took centre stage and the world dared to hope again….
And we ask: Is this too good to be true?
Will Obama deliver – not only good speeches but in actions?
Only time will tell.
And as always there will come a time when America and the rest of the world will fall out of love with this leader.
We cannot prevent this, as this is part of our human condition.
And this is why leaders (in business, politics, civil society) must read the signs and know when it is time for them to leave.

What are the lessons that South Africans and the rest of Africa could learn from all of the above?
What should our political leaders take to heart about the age-old art of rhetoric and speechmaking across the centuries, and why is Barack Obama getting it right?

It is no secret that politics in Africa is big business but that it has also become a circus.

From political wars, corruption, forever contesting election outcomes, Robert Mugabe, unruly mobs, and many more, Africa has not missed the ears and eyes of the world.

From Jacob Zuma, the President of the ANC, and his current charges for corruption and former charges for rape; to a former South African Minister of Health that proclaimed on the world stage that we only need potato, beetroot, garlic and lemon to counteract HIV/Aids; right through to the passé struggle politics and argumentation of the ANC Youth League President, Julius Malema (“We will kill for Zuma”, et cetera) – South Africa has not missed out on disastrous reputation formation.

We do have great leaders – even world class leaders that are globally recognised – like Nelson Mandela (with his demigod status) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who must be respected for his constant objectivity, fairness and consistency in his criticism of social and political issues.

These leaders are two of South Africa’s leading public relations and good reputation maintainers.

With elections looming in 2009, the current government, the ANC and other political movements and parties have a rocky road ahead to win the hearts and minds of people and opinion leaders here and across the globe. We would need to learn that the reputations of our religious, social, youth and political leaders will inevitably have a profound influence on the reputation of our country.
These leaders can learn from the principles of ancient rhetoric and look towards Barack Obama as a contemporary example.

Aristotle and his writings on the anatomy of speechmaking (recorded in his work Rhetoric), will be remembered as the greatest exponent of the art and science of oratory.

Aristotle emphasised a crucial point:
the end result of speaking occurs in the listener and therefore building rapport with the audience is of the utmost importance.

Most of history’s excellent speakers revealed a deep understanding of the emotional and spiritual needs of their audiences.

But what is speechmaking exactly?

Speechmaking is the purposeful transactional process by which one speaker, through the use of verbal and nonverbal (not-word) communication, engenders meaning in the minds of his/her audience.
Speechmaking is purposeful because it is always goal-directed.
To say that speechmaking is a transactional process implies that a partnership, or at least some kind of relationship, exits between the parties involved – the speaker and the audience – and that this transaction is not static but flexible, changing and continuous.

Calling speechmaking symbolic suggests that codes are used by the participants.
Finally, speechmaking engenders meaning.
This denotes that within the audience, meanings or understandings that parallel or duplicate those of the speaker are brought into being.
This creation of meaning takes place completely within the audience.

The formation of speechmaking, then, becomes that of creating messages that stimulate in the audience meanings that bring about desired responses.

Not all speeches that we hear, are the same or have the same objectives in mind.
Speeches are designed to inform, persuade, educate, actuate or provide ceremony.

In order to be an effective speaker, the speaker must start with analysing himself/herself.

According to Aristotle, ethos, as the mode of proof involving the speaker’s credibility, has to be considered.
Ethos exists not only in the speaker, but also in the eyes of the audience: is this speaker credible? Can we believe him/her?
There are usually seven main sources from which a speaker may derive ethos:
the right person for the job (the right person to deliver the speech), knowledge, competence, trustworthiness, similarity, credibility, and attraction.
These make up a speaker’s reputation.

Of course a speaker cannot rely on ethos alone to persuade an audience.
For Aristotle, three modes of persuasion are furnished by speechmaking: ethos, logos and pathos.

Ethos as already mentioned, depends on the personal characteristics and reputation of the speaker.
Logos depends on the nature of the message presented by the speaker to the audience and on the proof or apparent proof by the contents of the speech and the information in the message itself.
Pathos depends on the emotion of the audience, on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind by appealing to their emotions.

The impact of persuasive communication is of course today also enhanced by the utilisation of the modern, social and new electronic media.
We have seen this in the Obama-campaign in the use of SMS-messages to constituencies, as well as the use of electronic and other paraphernalia media to lend glorious event-like atmosphere to the political rallies.

In the months to come before and during the 2009 elections in South Africa, audiences will be bombarded by political speechmaking, debates and interviews on television, media reports, political rallies, party campaigns, advertising, conventions and conferences, and more.
There will be political commentaries and analyses by knowledgeable people.
There will be newspaper caricatures of political leaders.
Audiences will be targeted with a variety of persuasive communication techniques in political messages that will make their ears ring and their minds swing.
The messages will be repeated and audiences will either be in awe or irritated.
We will not escape the political communication that will come our way.

Following is my attempt at listing (only a few) aspects that South African and African leaders as communicators, as well as audiences as recipients of political messages, could take into consideration as the election year progresses:

Speechmaking should be geared to the needs of audiences.
The Obama victory speech has been an inspiring and all-inclusive one.
The whole of the American nation as a seasoned and respected democracy was taken into consideration.
Obama spoke to the people, resounding in the repetition of his campaign slogan:”Yes, we can”.
He did not over-emphasise the victory by the Democrats, but included all Americans.
Here is a lesson for us: The mere fact that our politicians are firstly ANC-members and then only part of the governing body of our country, sends a warped message.
The view of the ANC (or any other political movement or party for that matter) as this “Grey Immanence” does not ring true in any country calling itself a democracy.
Once elected to office, politicians become servants of the people and they shall serve in a system for all of the people. We need inclusive and not exclusive political leaders and communication.

Political communication needs to become more proactive and interactive, as opposed to reactive.
Apartheid and colonialism are dead and there is no need to flog dead horses anymore.
The horrors of the past should be remembered, but not repeated.
To be in power brings along great responsibility and accountability.
Mistakes will be made and blame for these mistakes should be acknowledged, not flung back into the past.
We need to look forward and move forward.
That is what visionary political leadership is all about.

Our political leaders should be enabling and not disabling to the people.
The Obama campaign-slogan again leaps to mind:”Yes, we can!”
Somehow there should be something more attractive and inclusive to bind people together than Umshini wam (“Bring me my machine gun”).
Dancing and singing is part of the nonverbal expression of South African politicians, and it is entertaining to see people toi-toi together, but surely there are indigenous songs with a more positive message than Umshini wam?
We must be reminded of the fact that in this wired-up globe we are also connected to the world stage and that the reputation of our country is often reflected by the reputations of our political leaders.

This brings us to the legal mishaps of Jacob Zuma, Jackie Selebi, and many others in our country.
When one court or judge pronounces a verdict, the political leader on the receiving end opts for another court and judge in the hope that the latter will deliver a more positive judgment.
And needless to say, this often happens.
In this process time passes, conclusive judgments are stalled, there is no closure to the issues and the political leader becomes a martyr-like figure, strengthening the leader’s hold on the system.
This also communicates something even more alarming: our legal system cannot make up its mind and it has no teeth.

The era of quiet diplomacy and blind loyalty towards our neighbours and friends during the struggle years, must come to an end.
The way in which South Africa has handled Robert Mugabe and the Zimbabwe-issue is a disgrace and leaves a blot on the South Africa’s reputation.
African leaders that for some reason do not want to recognise when the time has come for them to go, tarnish the reputation of this continent even further.
True democracies should never degenerate into despotisms.

Political leaders and their speechwriters could pay more attention to their speechmaking efforts during the coming elections.
The audiences as recipients of their messages are all important and these audiences are very diverse.
ANC President Jacob Zuma arranges the content of his presentations to suit different audiences – he says what the particular audience wants to hear.
The large promises that he makes to conservative audiences, differ largely in content from his messages to the ANC Youth League.
This is close to criminal where political speechmaking is concerned: Yes, the speaker should adapt to the particular audience, but the central message should always remain the same.
Only the peripheral messages and the approaches or appeals in the message should differ from audience to audience.
Here Obama has a lesson: the USA is a heterogeneous society, just like South Africa, but Obama speaks to all of his different groups of people as though they are one.
The central message in his communication is simple and all-inclusive.

These are only a few remarks and observations when it comes to speechmaking and what leaders and voters alike could take into consideration during the coming elections.
South Africa is preparing the stage for its political leaders to tell the people where they are going to take this country in the next few years.
Will we believe them and vote for them?
What will be pivotal for the voters to hear?
And how will our leaders illustrate that they are willing and able to move beyond rhetoric into the realm of action?
Of making things happen?
Will our leaders also consider that actions often speak louder than words?
And will the leaders remember that not only their reputations, but South Africa’s reputation also, are at stake when they act and speak?

Please follow our blog:

3 Replies to “Reputation lost, reputation won: Lessons from Aristotle and Barack Obama. Ronel Rensburg on Rhetoric and Public Relations. A South African Perspective.

  1. Michele

    I cannot agree more. Words are for “listening to” versus powerpoint presentations where the words are mainly repeated. Pictures are for “looking at”. But most speakers use powerpoint presentations incorrectly. In stead of using visual aids as an enhancement of speech, these aids can become impediments to good speechmaking.

    PR professionals must be able to write good speeches for clients AND know something about delivery.


  2. Ronel — Thanks for your thoughtful post. I wish more people would apply the lessons of good speechmaking.

    In my view, one should never underestimate the power of oratory. Elections are won and lost on the ability of a leader to communicate his or her policies, goals, etc., and reach into the hearts and minds of an audience. To connect. From a PR industry perspective, communication experts need to lead the bugle call that HOW one speaks is just as important as what one says.

    Kristen, a great example of the dilution PowerPoint presentations can wreak upon a great message – thanks. I agree; PowerPoints have become an unfortunate crutch that distract audiences from content and speaker. Distribute a take-away handout, if need be, but bulleted phrases on a screen deflate your stage presence.

    As nerve-wracking as public speaking can be for some, the best speakers (and leaders) are comfortable with all eyes on them. They own the stage. They exhort, entertain, challenge, inform and inspire — all without slides. And some, such as Lincoln, make history. Thanks again for a great read, Ronel.

  3. Ronel, your thought-provoking post about the power of good rhetoric (and many other important issuess for our leaders) makes me think of my favourite rant against the misuse of PowerPoint. I never tire of revisiting Peter Norvig’s PowerPoint presentation of the Gettysburg Address, which deomnstrates that visual “aids” can sometimes ruin the message.

    Anyone who has never read the Gettysburg Address, which you rightly (in my view) cite as “one of the greatest examples of masterful oratory”, should start with the full text (only 267 words!):

    Only after you’ve read the original text, visit for the PowerPoint version. (Granted, this was done a while ago with an old version of the software, but I think the point is still valid.)

    For me, this also comes back to issues of quality content and being authentic. The original speech meets those criteria, and the PowerPoint version doesn’t.

Comments are closed.