Message-Making: The Biden Speech

I didn’t watch Biden deliver his speech in Philadelphia, didn’t see the stagecraft, didn’t hear the pundits preview the speech or dissect it when he was done. Instead, on the following morning,  I pulled the transcript from the New York Times, printed it out, and read it, pen in hand. I wanted to study his speech, before I heard it, or heard about it. 

I liked what I read … a lot. Structure. Rhythm. Content. Values + Villains + Vision. It was built the way we teach people to build their messaging. 

Here’s what I particularly noted on the first read:

  • Biden named names, naming the villain. He didn’t use euphemisms, he didn’t say “my predecessor” or “the former president”. He named Trump. And he never said “President Trump” — just “Donald Trump”, reducing him to a citizen without position or rank. 
  • Biden gave national attention to “MAGA Republican”, which should now be repeated by every campaign, especially to mark Republican candidates who are Trumpists. Biden again drilled it into the public by repeating it again and again. This is a hashtag.
  • Biden separated MAGA Republicans from the rest of America saying that they are taking us back to the past, while we have a vision of the future.
  • Biden reclaimed the language: the right keeps using “We, the People” (the faulty grammar is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me!), even though they are decidedly a minority. But because they say it so often, we shy away from using the language. Biden reclaimed it — and he should, we are the people, the majority of the people. So “We, the People” appeared again and again in the speech — repetition for emphasis to drive it home. Great!
  • Biden did something we must always do — he linked values to actions by a litany of “I believe … so we passed …”. This is so crucially important. We need to talk about our values, what we believe in, as WHY we do stuff.  But we can’t just talk about our values — we have to talk about how we practice those beliefs. Rep. Haley Stevens did this at a recent fundraising event… she talked about all the good that Congress and Biden delivered, then she said “And WHY did we do this? Because we are for the people.” Biden’s use of “I believe … so we passed …” in a litany of deliveries was perfection! (Sidenote: I’m a big fan of litanies in speeches.)
  • Biden went BIG. “We’re going to end cancer as we know it, mark my words.” Yes! I wrote about this two years ago, and Aaron Sorkin said it 20 years ago. “I think ambition is good. I think overreaching is good. I think giving people a vision of government that is more than Social Security checks and debt reduction is good. I think government should be optimistic.” 
  • Biden closed his speech unconventionally … and beautifully. Every recent president (perhaps even Trump) ends a speech with something like this: “God bless you. God bless the United States of America.” Biden typically adds something like “And may God protect our troops.” But Biden replaced all that with the much more pointed: “And may God protect our nation, and may God protect all those who stand watch over our democracy.” It is always important to sandwich a long message by closing with the idea you began with, the idea which is threaded throughout the message. He opened with “Equality and Democracy”, and closed with “Democracy”. He even added it, like punctuation, in his final, off-script words: “God bless you all. Democracy. Thank you.

Overall, the speech was masterful in these respects – this was a speech to say that the soul of our nation was being attacked. That was imbued throughout, by identifying what we stand for, identifying where the attacks are coming from, identifying what will remain if the attack succeeds, and identifying what we can achieve if we defend America.

But the speech is also a lesson in the tactics, large and small, that hold a message together and burn your ideas into your audience’s consciousness. Repetition. Litanies. Framing. Promoting your Values, naming the Villain, holding out a Vision.

I recommend reading this speech and looking for techniques that you can use in your own message-making. It’s the best way to learn these much-needed skills.