Saturday, July 20, 2013

"Could have been me:" 4 lessons from Obama's remarks on Trayvon Martin

There's power afoot when a prominent public speaker takes on the persona of another. In a quiet statement that interrupted a regular news briefing Friday, President Obama did just that by speaking from his personal experience about being a black man in America, treated with suspicion as he went about his business. The remarks came at the end of a week of protests over the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who killed black teenager Trayvon Martin because he thought he posed a threat. The President's statement was so unexpected that every detail was reported, including the most powerful sentence: "[R]eading an unusually personal, handwritten statement, Mr. Obama summed up his views with a single line: 'Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago'."

When a speaker says "I am" or "I was" someone else, or "that could have been me," she wrests the example out of an objective distance and embraces it wholly. Unstated is the contention, "Whatever you think of this person, you think of me." The tactic has the element of surprise, turning assumptions on their heads. And in this case, it was the first time an American president could explain the situation of black people based on his own personal experience, a factor that made the words all the more powerful.

Interestingly, First Lady Michelle Obama recently took this same rhetorical approach in speaking about Hadiya Pendleton, a black teenage girl from Chicago who was shot and killed not long after she had performed at President Obama's inauguration with her high school band. Speaking after Pendleton's funeral, the First Lady said, "As I visited with the Pendleton family at Hadiya’s funeral, I couldn’t get over how familiar they felt to me.  Because what I realized was Hadiya’s family was just like my family.  Hadiya Pendleton was me, and I was her.  But I got to grow up, and go to Princeton and Harvard Law School, and have a career and a family and the most blessed life I could ever imagine."

In fact, prominent women speakers often connect their power with powerless members of their audience or constituencies: Think about Texas State Senator Wendy Davis's filibuster about access to women's health services, in which she said, "This is my life," or U.S. Representative Jackie Speier speaking about her own abortion, or U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore on her unplanned pregnancies. Taking on the persona of a specific person who is not yourself, however, adds strength and emphasis to the point that your experiences match those of the person about whom you're speaking.

There's no question Obama's words were heartfelt and powerful. Martin's parents issued a statement saying “President Obama sees himself in Trayvon and identifies with him. This is a beautiful tribute to our boy.” The tactic is not without issues, however. When Michelle Obama said "Hadiya Pendleton was me," critics called it "the height of craven narcissism." What can you learn from this strong approach to identifying with your audience?
  1. Look for unlikely matches: One of my own most persuasive presentations happened when a board member of the foundation I worked for asked me, early in the AIDS epidemic, why I was so passionate about preventing the disease. "I could be the person with AIDS," I said. "I'm at risk. This could kill me, right at the point in my life where I'm getting ready to get married and start my most productive years of work." I played the card of being an unlikely match for his assumptions about who was affected, and won that round. The President and First Lady are, at first glance, unlikely matches for these young teenagers whose lives were cut short violently; your unlikely match might be your age, experience, opinion, country of origin and more. Perhaps your speaking partner is the unlikely match, as in Phyllis Rodriguez and Aicha el-Wafi, mothers of two men affected by the September 11 attacks, but from very different points of view.
  2. Weigh what's different between "this happened to me" and "I am __________:" Speaking from your personal experience and telling your own stories is critical to authentic public speaking. But before you adopt the persona of another, think about your motivations for doing so, and what that gets you, beyond just talking about your own experience. In this case, the President wanted to reach black Americans outraged by the verdict and the fact that race was not discussed as part of the trial. His acknowledgment of what he and Martin experienced also embraced the many black Americans whom he knew had experienced the same thing--his real audience--and connected the dots between them.
  3. "I am" is more powerful than "me, too:" The "vertical pronoun" is the most powerful, and "I" statements are the ones only you can make--they're difficult for anyone else to challenge if you are willing to phrase your declaration in that way. "This happened to me, too" just doesn't carry the same weight and strength.
  4. Be sure you can embrace this comparison completely: When you say someone "could have been me" or "I am" someone else, be ready for the full and heartfelt embrace that such a statement requires. It's not a mask you're putting on, it's someone else's persona, a full-bodied--so to speak--representation of them. Yes, you're lending them the power of your place on the podium. But are you going to live up to that, and to the person you say you represent?
Video of the President's statement is below. What do you think of this speaker tactic?