Posted by: George | September 6, 2012

RNC vs. DNC: Authenticity and the Canons of Rhetoric

Brit Hume of Fox News has already tried to explain away the all too apparent difference in energy and excitement between the Republican National Convention (RNC) and the Democratic National Convention (DNC). He said the DNC was in a smaller hall and the convention planners had done more to amplify the cheers. Well, I’m not so sure.

The vibe at the DNC is definitely different, but I don’t think it has much to do with the hall. To explain what I see as the significant difference, I am going to need to say something about the canons of rhetoric.

The canons of rhetoric are discussed as early as Plato’s Phaedrus, they are covered more systematically in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, and they are codified by the time Cicero writes De Inventione. In brief, the five canons are invention (the development of ideas), arrangement (what we tend to call organization these days), style (that one is pretty clear), memory (techniques for recalling long speeches), and delivery (the oral performance of a speech).

In modern time, as you might suspect, memory has been given less importance as the technology of writing improved. By technology of writing, I don’t so much mean improvements in pen, ink, and paper, but these developments did have some affect on the decline of memory. I mean the technology of typewriters and eventually Teleprompters. It is easier to read a typescript than even the clearest handwritten text. With Teleprompters and, I would add, the general acceleration of modern life, teams of speech writers could produce texts that a politician could rehearse quickly and then deliver via reading rather than memory while apparently making eye contact with the audience.

The reasons for a decline in delivery are less apparent. I would argue this decline is partially related to the decline in memory. When a speaker memorizes a text, he or she is also practicing delivery. If the speaker relies heavily on a Teleprompter, less practice is required. To memorize a text is, to some extent, an internalization of that text. It becomes a part of us. Our delivery comes across as more authentic.

During the RNC, even the placement of the Teleprompters seemed to influence the delivery. Typically, a Teleprompter is set both to the right and left of a speaker. This way, the speaker can shift attention to the left and right and mimic eye contact with the audience in the hall. At the RNC, there seemed to be an additional Teleprompter just to the left of center.

The purpose of the center Teleprompter, I assume, was to allow speakers to look directly into the eyes of television viewers, creating a sense of sincerity. However, as I said above, the center Teleprompter seemed a little to the left (stage left) of the center camera. So, instead of looking directly into the eyes of the television viewer, the speaker seemed to be unable to make direct eye contact, which can come across as a sign of dishonesty.

If the RNC really wanted speakers to connect with the audience (both in the hall and at home), they should have asked them memorize some portions of their speeches or feel comfortable with a few adlibs here and there. What we saw with the center Teleprompter was not more authenticity but far less. (Of course, adlibs don’t always work, and there is a danger of slight slips that can morph into sound bites that do enormous damage. Or, a speaker can have a total breakdown, as we saw with Clint Eastwood’s dialog with an empty chair.)

On Tuesday night, Michele Obama gave one of the best convention speeches I have ever heard. Reportedly, she worked on the speech for a month, both writing and rehearsing it. She very clearly  had large sections of it memorized and, thus, did not have to rely on the Teleprompter as much.

(This is not the only reason the First Lady came across as authentic. It was clear that she deeply felt the emotions she wanted to convey. As Cicero said, never attempt to use an emotion is a speech unless you truly feel it yourself.)

Last night, Bill Clinton gave another great speech. Was his text on a Teleprompter? Yes. Did he read the text? Not much. In fact, the text of his prepared speech was about 3,000 words. The text of the speech he delivered was about double that. In other words, he had memorized his speech (at least, the basic elements of it) and then he spoke from memory (to some degree), but he also recreated the speech on the spot. He was in the moment, reacting to audience as they reacted to him.

(As with the First Lady’s speech, memory and delivery do not account for all of Clinton’s authenticity. Clinton was pouring out Southern charm with fire hose. His role last night was to attack the RNC attacks on Obama’s record.  I don’t think many people outside the South understood how he did pulled off a devastating critique without coming across as mean-spirited. In Southern culture, someone can come up to you, smile, and say in a sweet, sing-song voice, “Have a nice day,” A Yankee, who misses the code, might think, “What a nice guy.” A Southerner, who understands the code, will realize that what he was actually being told was something like this: “You’re nothing but an egg-sucking Som Bitch. I’m gonna rip off your head and piss down your throat.” That is the complexity and the nuance of Southern charm, and that is exactly what Clinton demonstrated last night.)

Memory and delivery will, except on rare occasions, come across as more authentic than reading a text word for word. Brit, it wasn’t the size of the hall. It was memory.



  1. In our lessons this year you will probably tell some stories which will be very interesting to all of us. You must, therefore, learn to tell them well, One rule that is very important is this: Always stand squarely on your feet.
    Essential Language Habits (1923)

    I did see the First Lady “stand squarely” on her feet. However, I am very, very sorry not to have been near a television when Clinton wished the RNC a nice day!

    (I have really enjoyed these posts, so thanks!)


  2. Remarkable! Its truly awesome piece of writing, I have got much
    clear idea about from this paragraph.


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