Lessons from speech writing

President Obama’s speech at Madiba’s funeral has been described as a “masterclass” and a “lesson in speech writing”. The speech is also an excellent example of the use of parallelism to create a powerful rhythm. Parallelism (or parallel structure) is when all elements in the sentence have the same weight and are often the same part of speech. For example, all elements are nouns or adjectives or the same verb form. Here’s an extract from Obama’s speech:

It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailor as well; to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion, generosity and truth. .

The words in bold show the start of the three elements, all of which begin with an infinitive (“to” form of a verb). The structure of the three elements are also equal, each element containing two aspects, e.g. “not just the prisoner” and “but the jailor as well”. These three beats resonate in the listener’s head, creating a crystal clear image.

In his inaugural speech, Obama also used parallelism to great effects. The equal (parallel) elements are shown in bold.

My fellow citizens: I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage.

Even if you are not writing a speech, consider using parallelism in your writing so that your message resonates with your readers. Read what you have written out loud and listen for the rhythm.

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