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Everyone’s a critic of presidential speeches, and you can be, too!

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(Read caption) A 'Wordle' of President Obama's inagural address.

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Presidential speeches are like opera, French pastries, or synchronized swim routines. They have surface appeal – but become truly interesting once you learn how much work goes into their construction.

Thus political pros pore over the transcripts of big White House addresses as if they were analyzing a blueprint or a new Sondheim score. What’s the theme? Where are the intended sound bites? How’s the ending flourish?

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Here at Decoder HQ, we’re all about demystifying Washington. So the next time President Obama gives a big address, if you want to listen like a senator [Ed. note: Senators don’t listen; they only speak], here are some tips:

1. Ditch the media filter. Yes, it’s fun to watch the bickering on cable news, and maybe it validates your political leanings, but, trust us, it gets in the way. Watch C-SPAN. An hour without swooping logos never killed anyone. Plus, C-SPAN’s setup shots of empty podiums can be oddly relaxing.

2. Get a hard copy. The White House releases highlights of big speeches hours before they’re given. The full text comes out minutes before airtime. Due to the magic of the Internet, these are available, almost instantly, to anyone.

3. Circle the key words. The beginning of big speeches often contains important words that summarize the overall impression that presidents want to convey. When ex-President George W. Bush talked about Iraq, he often used “victory,” for example, because polling showed that voters thought a plan for victory was important. Mr. Obama used “strategy” a number of times at the start of his April 14 address on the economy, presumably because he wants voters to think that all the stuff the administration is doing on the economy fits together.

4. Listen for repetition. Obama frequently used the phrase “house upon a rock” in his April 14 speech to describe how solid the economy should be. Does he have the “vision thing”? He wants voters to believe he does, and some expert listeners say he’s pretty adept at conveying his ideas. “President Obama does a better-than-average job of setting the audience up, making sure they’re clear on what he’s trying to say,” says Gerald Shuster, an expert in presidential rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh.

5. Consider the whole. Headlines about speeches are often too simple, or even off point. (See Tip 1.) Many articles about Obama’s speech on the economy led with the fact that he’d said there are “glimmers of hope,” indicating that the worst of the recession may be over. Literally, that was true – but the point of the talk really was to convey a much broader idea about the interaction of his administration’s policies, as anyone who followed the entire text could tell.

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What’s that, you say? Doesn’t D.C. Decoder write headline stories about presidential speeches, too? Yes. But my analysis is subtle and refined. No matter what my wife says.


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