Everyone would like to be as memorable and effective a speaker as Barack Obama or Bill Clinton. And the fact is that anyone can because there is really just one big secret to being a memorable speaker -- knowing how to use the figures of speech.
Here is one of Obama's more memorable applause lines from his big convention speech, explaining why the Republicans "don't want you to know their plan" for fixing this country's problems:
... all they have to offer is the same prescriptions they've had for the last 30 years. Have a surplus? Try a tax cut. Deficit too high -- try another. Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning.
Here you have multiple figures: basic repetition, an extended medical metaphor, an allusion to a well-known line ("take two aspirin and call me in the morning"), and sarcasm.
Probably 90% of the lines in books of famous quotations make use of one or more of the figures. The two biggest sources of famous quotes -- the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare -- were written by Elizabethans who learned more than two hundred figures of speech in school. They called it "grammar school" for a reason. You learned Latin grammar to read Latin writers like Cicero and Virgil, especially to learn what they knew about the figures and practice the figures yourself.
Research by social scientists and Madison Avenue has shown that the figures are indeed the key to being memorable and persuasive, as I discuss in my book, Language Intelligence: Lessons on Persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln and Lady Gaga. That's why a major study of print ads found that three-fourths of ad headlines use figures of speech.
Of course, a great speechmaker like Bill Clinton is a master of the figures. In his 1996 acceptance speech, he created an optimistic metaphor for his second term: "We need to build a bridge to the future.... So tonight let us resolve to build that bridge to the twenty-first century." He repeated the bridge metaphor in various forms two dozen times.
In his Wednesday night speech for Obama, Clinton repeated the word "arithmetic" six times to drive home his point that the Republican budget doesn't add up. He had lines like:'
I want to nominate a man who's cool on the outside but who burns for America on the inside.
This is antithesis -- placing words or ideas in contrast or opposition. It was one of Lincoln's favorite figures, in unforgettable lines such as "the world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here" and "with malice toward none, with charity for all."
But you don't have to be Obama, Clinton, Lincoln or Shakespeare to make yourself memorable by mastering the figures. Yes, delivery matters, but the fact is most convention speeches become instantly forgettable even if they are well-delivered -- if they are poorly written, as we saw in the Republican convention where even the superstars bombed.
On the other hand, former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm was able stand out as an outstanding speaker Thursday night with her classic rhetorical attack on Romney and praise of Obama:
He loves our cars so much, they have their own elevator. But the people who design, build, and sell those cars?
Well, in Romney's world, the cars get the elevator; the workers get the shaft....
When American markets broke down, who jump-started the engine? Barack Obama! And when America needed it most, who got us rolling again on the road to recovery? Barack Obama!
America, let's rev our engines! In your car and on your ballot, the "D" is for drive forward, and the "R" is for reverse. And in this election, we're driving forward, not back.
Repetition, puns, antithesis, and an extended metaphor built around cars -- that's what makes a memorable speech that brings the house down. And anyone can do it by by mastering the figures of speech.