On Discourse Analysis, Looking at a Sample of Spoken Discourse from Michelle Obama’s Democratic National Conference Presentation

9 September 2016

On Discourse Analysis, looking at a sample of spoken discourse from Michelle Obama’s Democratic National Conference Presentation. In this paper I aim to apply different methods of discourse analysis to a selected extract of transcribed language. I have chosen to transcribe a speech given by the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. Firstly, to briefly outline the context, the speech was given during the Democratic National Convention in September 2012, in the run up to the presidential election in which her husband, Barack Obama is rallying for re-election.

Michelle is introduced by Elaine Brye, a ‘fellow mom’ and what’s more, ‘military mom’ of 5 sons, four of whom cover all of the American forces. Byre appropriately asks “What’s a mom like me doing in a place like this? I’m not even a political person! ” She talks of her children as treasures, of how the Obama family have supported military families, and of how her and Michelle can relate ‘mom to mom’.

On Discourse Analysis, Looking at a Sample of Spoken Discourse from Michelle Obama’s Democratic National Conference Presentation Essay Example

This introduction sets the scene for what Michelle is about to talk about, giving rise to the topics of ‘ordinary-ness’, the stories of rags-to-riches, and the duty of ‘being mom-in-chief’, all of which appeals to the audience of American people. Michelle’s language has visible aims to make them feel united, empowered, proud, and hopeful. Michelle walks in wearing a cerise pink dress, waving and laughing and thanking the crowd for their applause, she is evidently humbled by the audience’s applause and cheer.

There is also an apt choice of music by Stevie Wonder; with the lyrics “signed sealed delivered, I’m yours” this with a subtle, playful message perhaps hinting to their confidence in winning this election, given the physical acts of sealing and delivering a vote on election day, and of her husband ‘signing up’ for his new term in office. Michelle finally begins by thanking Elaine Brye, and uses the collective ‘we’, “We are so grateful for your family’s service and sacrifice, and we will always have your back” (YouTube clip 4:20)[1].

This ambiguous ‘we’ has the potential to be on behalf of either President Obama and herself, or indeed the American Public. Young and Fitzgerald (2006) state that “critical discourse analysts use several different methods to help them ‘dig’ beneath the surface of the discourse” (2006: 16). These include conversation analysis, and looking at politeness strategies, but for the purpose of my chosen sample, a public speech, one technique I have chosen to focus on, is Systemic Functional Linguistics, in an analysis ‘partnership’ with CDA.

SFL is “a way of understanding the functions that language performs and the choices people make when they speak to exchange meaning with listeners” (2006: 16), and from my understanding of the process, it is necessary to ask a certain set of questions, when carrying out SFL research, which eventually lead us to answer “why a speaker or writer made these types of choices; and how they reflect relationships between powerful and weaker groups” (2006: 23).

The first questions at this stage of SFL, is who is participating, and what are the processes and circumstances. Young and Fitzgerald comment: “When studying a discourse, SFL researchers are interested in the meanings that participants, processes and circumstances are creating. Using these labels helps analysts figure out ‘who is doing what to whom: when, where and how’ (2006: 16-17)

There is the brief discourse between the first speaker Elaine, and Michelle, and between all speakers there is a sustained interaction with the audience, within the circumstance of a 23,000-seat North Carolina arena (MacAskill 2012). Therefore, for the most part, the purpose of Michelle’s language is to engage the American political supporters, although this audience is later extended to a world-wide audience due to the filming of the speech, it’s broadcast on ABC News, and subsequent access via the internet.

She begins speaking, “with your help, with your help (4:00)” which immediately addresses the American audience, replying to their bellowing chants of “four more years”. This immediately creates a supportive atmosphere, a chant being something everyone in the audience can contribute to and participate in, Michelle is mirroring the three word phrase, as former Prime Minister Tony Blair once did, famously uttering the phrase Education, education, education! using reification to communicate a powerful message to the public.

“Effective political communication has always relied on easily understood slogans and phrases” (Jones 1996: 27 cited in Charteris-Black 2011: 225), and in this context of a re-election campaign, MO effectively instills the fact that the desired outcome can only happen with the people’s help of going out to vote for her husband, Barack Obama. She continues to speak directly to Elaine, showing gratitude and making this beginning even more emotionally charged. In these foundations, a political underlay is felt, which may or may not have been intended.

By having a ‘military mom’ introduce her, and by immediately talking about war and deployment, it could be inferred that she is encouraging and glorifying the concept, indeed going on to discuss the American Spirit, which she has “seen in our men and women in uniform in our proud military families (5:15)”. This inferred message is drawn from a Critical Discourse Analysis, whereby patterns which can be identified in a speech, using SFL, require further questioning, such as “What does this pattern mean? Does it have a purpose? And what does it show about his (her) intent? ” (2006: 18).

What is to be considered in the circumstance of this discourse, is it’s origin and originality, as any speech begs the question; “Do the words convey the speaker’s ‘real’ beliefs? ” (Charteris-Black 2011: 5). Various newspaper articles, both in Britain and the USA, followed this speech with comment on the “personal thrust” (MacAskill 2012) MO displayed. Her role as First Lady is not an elected political role, and therefore her case here is as personal, as it is political. Throughout my analysis of this particular oral presentation, it has become apparent that a natural, well flowing narrative structure is present.

It conceals, and is often broken with, rigid and fortified repetition, as in her use of the temporal adjective ‘everyday’ or an alliterative pattern of abstract nouns, as shown at (12:14) “dignity and decency…. honesty and integrity… gratitude and humility”. Here she also repeats “we learned about”, initially addressing herself and Barack, MO “demonstrates what van Dijk describes as ‘positive self-representation’, in this case by attributing the above collection of desirable human qualities, which are emotionally appealing, to the audience” (cited in Charteris-Black 2011: 19).

MO extends this to complement the audience by saying “those are the values that Barack and I and so many of you are trying to pass on to our own children” thus making the personal narrative inclusive and approving. Again, such a pattern has been observed using SFL, and it’s communications explored in CDA, whereby I believe this break from narrative structure puts a much increased emphasis on the keywords here which display features of alliteration and notably less spontaneity than the story they sit within.

A study into the ‘Oral Versions of Personal Experience’ states that “Normally, narrative serves an additional function or personal interest determined by a stimulus in the social context in which the narrative occurs” (Labov and Waletzky 1966), which isn’t reflective of Michelle’s use of narrative in her speech. Due to the nature of the spoken discourse she doesn’t receive the external stimulus, she has the power to speak ‘at’ an unassuming audience, and her language is evidently more prepared and drafted, within the seemingly impromptu story-telling.

Another spoken discourse feature which engages with the cohesion of the language is the list-of-three. Michelle uses this strategy almost seamlessly throughout, often employing the over-use of the conjunction ‘and’, such as “everywhere I’ve gone and the people I’ve met and the stories I’ve heard…” This elongates the utterance to emphasise her journey so far and the monotony in it’s assonance hint’s to the ‘never-ending’ experience as first lady of America.

A CDA framework suggests her desire to remain in the White House, given her clues later in the speech which include semantic inferences of ‘unfinished business’, for example at (20:55), MO quotes her husband saying: “Michelle, We’ve got to keep working to fix this, we’ve got so much more to do! ”, at which point she struggles to re-start through the repeated chants of ‘four more years’, giving her positive feedback and support her personal campaign.

Michelle’s speech often chronicles the worries she had before her husband was elected President, four years prior to this speech. She keeps the parents and particularly the mothers in the audience involved, using a conversational style, “like any mother I was worried about what it would mean for our girls”, and retains the intimate style by asking rhetorical questions to the audience. “y’know, how would we keep them grounded?”. MO displays another example of the communicative power a list of three houses, when the “simple joys” of life before presidency arise: “Saturdays at soccer games, Sundays at Grandma’s house, and a date night for Barack and me…” whereby the two routine events precede the last which is more personal, and leads into a joke, “either dinner or a movie because as an exhausted mom I couldn’t stay awake for both! ”.

MO also uses a powerful list of three to introduce the topic of the ‘American Dream’, whilst simultaneously talking about her and Barack’s parents: “their unconditional love, their unflinching sacrifice and the chance to go places they had never imagined for themselves” (08:17). This is a clever lead into the topic, which is a known theme throughout Obama’s legacy. Such a visionary, and now almost controversial topic has been depicted as an unrealistic or unfulfilling struggle in renowned American literature such as ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘The Catcher in the Rye’.

Charteris-Black states that President Obama is “The living embodiment of the policies he advocates as much as he provides their expressive medium” (2011: 280) which is interesting because Michelle also reflects this ‘dream life’ by employing the conceptual metaphor ‘The Nation is a Family’ which is broken down in Charteris-Black: “Ideas of the national family are persuasive because the family symbolises a source of security, and the desire to protect the family is at the basis of moral systems” (2011: 29).

MO successfully unites the audience, as a family, in the context of the pre-election Democratic National Convention, so that her following speech relates even to those who perhaps don’t conform, struggle, work hard, or fight for their country in the military, and indeed those who are not living in an American Dream. This combination of language and pragmatics is working firstly to persuade supporters to vote, and secondly to support her husband in this credible narrative which their lives symbolise.

“Barack knows what it means when a family struggles, he knows what it means to want something more for your kids and grandkids” (17:40). Leading the audience back to the collective ‘we’, which is now strongly reinforced and familiar to the audience, she continues: “Barack knows the American dream because he’s lived it, and he wants everyone in this country, everyone, to have that same opportunity, no matter who we are, or where we’re from, or what we look like, or who we love” (17:50).

This resounding quote from the speech demonstrates the above observed SFL features, the elongated sentence which displays inclusiveness and again the ceaseless list of people who are accepted to, in a CDA inference, ‘vote Obama’. It also mentions ‘opportunity’ and is a very emotive and personal part of her speech, as she catches her breath and has tears in her eyes,. The act of persuasion is key in any political speech.

Jowett and O’Donnell (1992) argue the three ways in which the persuader may seek to influence the receiver, including response shaping, response reinforcing and response changing. Michelle Obama is consistently reinforcing this American Dream discourse, moving from older stories about her and Barack’s grandparents, to future hope establishment for America’s children. The discourse always relates to ‘working a job’, fitting tight with Barack’s fair-pay and healthcare policies.

Michelle announces a ‘fundamental American promise’ that “if you work hard and do what you’re supposed to do, you should be able to build a decent life for yourself, and an even better life for your kids and grand-kids (11:50)” and she speaks not as if people didn’t already believe or live by this, but as if it weren’t possible to believe this enough, and therefore reinforcement, and repetition reflect her attitude and stance in this section of the speech, an answer to the second question of SFL “What are the speaker’s or writer’s attitudes and stances? ” (2006: 19). Jowett and O’Donnell continue to explain her persuasion technique:

People are reluctant to change; thus, in order to convince them to do so, the persuader has to relate change to something in which the persuadee already believes. This is called an ‘anchor’ because it is already accepted by the persuadee and will be used to tie down new attitudes or behaviours” … “A persuador analyses an audience in order to be able to express its needs, desires, personal and social beliefs, attitudes and values as well as its attitudes and concerns about the social outcome of the persuasive situation” (1992: 22-3 Cited in Charteris-Black 2011: 17-18).

In this case the “anchor” as such, is Opportunity. And through the CDA framework, the ideology is now with working hard, taking your opportunities and creating the concept of a ‘better life’ for yourself and offspring. Ideology is explained by van Dijk as “the basis of the social representations shared by members of a group” (van Dijk 1998: 8 cited in Goatley 2007: 1) and Goatley neatly states “after all, we are all members of a community and share the thoughts and language that make action within that community or society possible” (2007: 1).

MO has therefore created and reinforced an ideology which is appropriate and accessible to her audience, maintaining power and support in the discourse. This topic is notable because of the discussion of stance, in SFL, and the principles for CDA discussed in Young and Fitzgerald (2006: 24). Firstly using SFL to objectively note her position (stances) as a wife, mother, and First Lady, rather than that of a political figure, and her consequent stance when speaking at a Democratic National Convention.

The CDA which stems from this enables an “explanation and interpretation of a discourse in terms of the relationships between language, power and ideology” (2006: 23). Ruth Wodak comments on the CDA principle that ‘discourse does ideological work’ in saying that “ideologies are particular ways of representing and constructing society, which reproduce unequal relations of power, relations of domination and exploitation’ and she notes that ‘they are often false and ungrounded’ (Wodak 1996: 17-20 cited in Young and Fitzgerald 2006: 24).

Inherently, the conditional MO uses within the ‘American promise’ not only persuades ‘doing what you’re supposed to do”, it also inadvertently addresses issues of crime, alcohol and drug abuse, and other social problems which cost the government money and make it difficult for America to relieve their economic situation, things which challenge her husband’s job and reputation. In an emotive and personal way, Michelle is echoing Barack’s political ideologies and advocating whats is best for society.

The combination of SFL and CDA however, “enables you to undertake a thoughtful and careful analysis that minimizes bias” (2006: 26), remembering that there are many more areas in a Presidents control which have altered the nations economic welfare. What is interestingly observed by Charteris-Black in his chapter which focuses solely on Barack Obama and the American Dream, is that this ‘dream’ can seem like a myth, in that it focuses so much on the future and the unknown but loosely possible, “The myth defies analysis and is even more irresistible when coming through someone who symbolises the dream” (2011: 309).

Michelle’s reverberation of Obama’s initial 2008 policies, and her links to the present day, are all within this vocabulary chain of work and (financial) security, and the antecedent to “his agenda for the next term, which includes new jobs, new opportunity and new security for the middle class” (Curtis 2013), therefore leaving the audience member satisfied with consistency, optimism and hope, and the analyst very aware of the planning and intricacy in the core ideas that the Democratic speakers must exhibit in their language. At (26:20) she adds “surely, surely we can give everyone in this country a fair chance at that great American dream”.

The third question highlighted in Young and Fitzgerald’s book is “what hold’s the discourse together? ” (2006: 20). Cohesion and understandability in this speech is absolutely vital, because the secondary participant, the audience, is made up of such a vastly differing group of people, all of whom should relate to some extract from the speech. The camera angles cut to images of the young and old, certain public figures such as Lilly Ledbetter who influenced a bill for equal pay, and of course, to men and women of all classes and races in the crowd responding to MO.

An observation in my analysis is the reference to feminism when Michelle tells the story of Barack’s grandmother. “she moved quickly up the ranks but like so many other women she hit a glass ceiling” (Clip 10:56) this not only reflects the inequalities of the time, but MO has retained the vocabulary chain of the war, struggle and military by choosing the metaphors “moving up ranks” and “hitting a glass ceiling”. In SFL question three these retentions are important in keeping the whole text’s Theme, “in SFL research, the term Theme, when capitalised has a more specific meaning; it refers to the initial words /phrases in a clause” (2006: 21).

“In other words, why also encompasses questions of motivation, particularly with regard to how the speaker’s/writer’s choices constitute, maintain, and/or challenge relationships of power in our society” (2006:23). Not only this but here she subtly draws contrast with her husbands main opponent Mitt Romney, who’s policies on abortion and equal pay were deemed unclear, by “avoiding attacking him directly but making clear her belief that he was deeply our of touch with ordinary people” (MacAskill 2012). With regard to gender and language, “gender cannot be reduced simply to generalisations about all men or all women” (2006: 36).

As mentioned previously, Michelle stands representing numerous female roles as a mother, wife and First Lady. Her language is highly emotive and this is typical of the female gender discourse, especially so when she discusses Barack’s grandmother’s circumstance in her job, talking of how “like so many women she hit a glass ceiling (10:56)”. The SFL analysis of this section not only highlights the use of the ‘glass ceiling’ metaphor, it notes the repetition of the agent/goal ‘men’, in comparison to the grandmother, men who “she had actually trained” who are being “no more qualified” yet “promoted up the ladder ahead of her”.

This promotes a sense of ‘sisterhood’ and in CDA, given that it addresses social problems (Wodak cited in Young and Fitzgerald 2006: 14) would suggest that Michelle is emphasising the difference in today’s society, how times have changed even though what happened to Barack’s grandmother seemed acceptable at the time (“giving her best without complaint or regret” (11:19)) and cleverly makes link to her husbands campaign,

“So when it comes to rebuilding our economy, Barack is thinking about folks like my dad and like his grandmother, he’s thinking about the pride that comes from a hard days work, thats why he signed the Lilly Ledbetter fair pay act, to help women get equal pay for equal work” (14:46) MO returns to these points of equality and fairness at (22:15) “for Barack there is no such thing as Us and Them”, having previously claimed at (16:25) “he believes that women are more than capable of making our own choices about our bodies and our healthcare, thats what my husband stands for”.

For the audience, this is now more credible coming from a woman, and needless to say, a women who is thought to know the president and his thoughts better and truer than anyone else. Lastly in this section, at (24:05) “let us never forget that doing the impossible is the history of this nation it is who we are as Americans and it is how this country was built (24:05)”. One of her final statements in the speech, and one which was most poignant in headlines and reports following its execution, is at (27:00) “At the end of the day, my most important title is still mom in chief”.

To conclude, Michelle is making a personal and political case for her husbands re-election. She is supporting, echoing and repeating some of his key ideas and policies, as well as engaging with an audience with whom she relates to in typical ways such as being a mom, a worker, and simply, an American. She stands as ‘living proof’ of the American Dream, (as does her husband), and says all the ‘right’ things about raising a family and wanting to better yourself through struggle and triumph.

Thus making her speech inspirational and ‘feel-good’. Through the combination of Systemic Functional Linguistics and Critical Discourse Analysis, guided by a book entitled ‘The Power of Language’ by Young and Fitzgerald (2006), the concern with the interconnections among power, ideology and language has been explored in this particular extract to reveal the ways in which a speech of this personal and political hybrid nature, can influence thought and action within the audience. Mostly.

Michelle Obama has done this by taking narrative-style, personal experience, and carefully structured language including simple phrases which will reverberate in the listeners mind, such as “with your help” and “forward”. These phrases became key elements in the branded ‘Obama’ campaign, seen all over the world. And at this time of writing, it is known he was re-elected and has just begun his second term as the President. The end of the speech is worth extracting, as it demonstrates the seamless cohesion of topics and captures the intrinsic message of the whole speech:

“Today, I know from experience, if I truly want to leave a better world for my daughters, for all of our sons and daughters, if we wanna give all of our children a foundation for their dreams, and opportunities worthy of their promise, it, if we wanna give them that sense of limitless possibility, their belief that here in America there is always something better out there if you’re willing to work for it, then we must work like never before!

And we must once again come together and stand together for the man we can trust to keep moving this great country forward, my husband, our president, Barack Obama! ” (27:35) As she introduces her husband, there is further overwhelming support from the audience, who appear genuinely moved by the experience. van Dijk states that “CDA is designed to provide a more in-depth insight into the implications of the language we use; particularly the societal consequences” (1993).

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