Michelle Obama's somber DNC address was a perfect fit for an unprecedented virtual convention

  • The virtual convention format proved tricky for many Democrats Monday night, but Michelle Obama showed there’s a way to nail it by veering away from what would normally work in an arena.
  • Rather than relying on applause lines, the former first lady delivered a somber and direct speech that would have been awkward in an arena, but worked like a charm alone in front of a camera.
  • “You know that I tell you exactly what I’m feeling. You know I hate politics,” she said, delivering a line many Americans can relate to, but one that may have fallen flat in convention hall packed with delegates and political die hards.
  • Obama’s memorable speech also saved the first night of the convention from being mired by its telethon-esque first hour.
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For all the fretting over how awkward a virtual convention might be, Michelle Obama made it look pretty easy.

The former first lady enjoys one of the highest approval ratings of any American in politics and has been named the “most admired woman” in the world from Gallup’s annual survey.

Yet beyond relying on her popularity, Obama deployed simple yet effective tactics to nail her convention speech.

Avoiding applause lines altogether turned out to be a major reason behind how she “stuck the landing,” in the words of Fox News host and former White House Press Secretary Dana Perino.

The tone of the speech – particularly in Obama’s outlining of what she pointed to as President Trump’s biggest failures – bordered on gloomy.

Reading the room

In an arena primed for balloons, confetti and applause lines, such an appeal very well could have been awkward. However, with more than 170,000 Americans dead from the coronavirus and unemployment remaining just above 10%, Obama met the mood of the country.

She also used rhetorical tactic known as the humility or modesty topos, or at least her own version of it.

Commonly referred to in academic literature as a tool used by female writers throughout history, the humility topos involves professing no expertise on a subject in a way that actually solidifies the author’s authority.

“Now, I understand that my message won’t be heard by some people. We live in a nation that is deeply divided, and I am a Black woman speaking at the Democratic Convention,” Obama said.

“But enough of you know me by now. You know that I tell you exactly what I’m feeling. You know I hate politics. But you also know that I care about this nation. You know how much I care about all of our children.”

Saying you “hate politics” in front of a convention hall packed with delegates and political die hards may have been a cringeworthy moment, but in the virtual format, Obama was able to use her aversion to partisanship and political ambition as a way to level with the American people – many of whom do not follow politics very closely.

By starting out from a position of humility and straight talk, Obama was then able to build to an effective crescendo with her call to action.

“So if you take one thing from my words tonight, it is this: if you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can; and they will if we don’t make a change in this election,” she said toward the end of her speech. “If we have any hope of ending this chaos, we have got to vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it.”

If Obama had gone with a more typical convention line for her prerecorded remarks – a pregnant pause for applause, increasing the volume of her voice when praising the candidate – it would have been met with an uncomfortable silence and come accross as inauthentic given her reputation as someone weary of politics.

By having a precise grasp of the medium and the mood of the country, Obama showed that a virtual convention address can generate as much buzz as a barn-burner followed by balloons and confetti, and maybe even more so.

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