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Obama’s soundbyte failure

Gene Koo has a great post about why Obama’s speeches don’t produce sound bytes. Gene calls them “non-reductive.” The speeches are too complex for soundbytes. Obama’s soundbyte failure is, as Gene says, a strength, although he points out that politically Obama has also benefited from the ability of others — Will.i.am, for example — to produce soundbytes on his behalf.

I loved yesterday’s speech. I’ve loved it each time I’ve heard it. I liked it even more when I heard it on the radio, free of distractions. And Gene gets at why. The speech actually says something. It takes us through a set of gates to get to where we need to be. Gate 1: Yes, times are hard. We have to look at that squarely. But there is hope, based on some real things. Gate 2: We are pushing past the old contradictions that formed our idea of what is possible. Not big government or small government. Not security or liberty. Not Republican or Democract, black or white, Christian or Muslim or Jew or Hindu or non-believer (yay for the shout out!). Gate 3: Together, we are strong and resourceful and imaginative. Gate 4: We share, and should return to, our abiding values. Call them hope and virtue.

There was more in there. But, there was nothing I would take out. And there was also, therefore, little I would excerpt in pursuit of a soundbyte.

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14 Responses to “Obama’s soundbyte failure”

  1. Surely that’s “bite” not “byte”?

  2. Easy “soundbitable” speech is a product of obsession with “mastery” over language. Whatever we “master” (is there anything we don’t try to master) – typically dies. University level “mastery” over language basically means first “cutting” your thoughts into pieces… and then laying them out as a corpse.

    Obama seems to be able to breath life (back) into that corpse… as in delivery.

  3. I meant “breathe”…

  4. “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

    I think that makes for a good one, personally.

  5. Adam, yes, there was lots of good writing in the speech. But there was no simple phrase that said it all, that summed it up, that could be the simple headline in the newspaper the next day.

  6. This blog post captured exactly my feelings about his address — the speech was so substantive and even better on the second listen.

    But back on the soundbite tip, NPR did an interview with will.i.am during the inauguration weekend where will.i.am talked about making the “Yes We Can” remix. You can find it here:
    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=99464506&ft=1&f=1105

    I found the will.i.am remix to be profoundly meaningful because (a) the “Yes We Can” speech was itself very uplifting and (b) because his treatment of it exemplified what I want in my new media (and what I want copyright law and policy to permit and encourage): inspired re-tellings of significant moments.

  7. I had precisely the same reaction, and wrote about it here if you’re interested in another view:

    http://quantumdice.blogspot.com/2009/01/dogmas-of-quiet-past-are-inadequate-to.html

  8. I mentioned Will.i.am because this rhetorical strategy is also highly risky, and Obama needed every ounce of “rock star” he had to pull it off. I don’t know that it’s something easily repeatable, the rise of new media notwithstanding, although I hope we will see more of it in politics to come.

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