Lately, I've become interested in coded language. Politicians are expert in using coded language. Their words are freighted with double meanings. There is the surface meaning, and then there is the coded meaning. The code can be a signal to supporters, or it can simply be an appeal to emotion by conjuring up cherished symbols and events. Consider this bit from the beginning of the speech:
"At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents."
This is a sentence rich with historical symbolism. "We the people," excerpted directly from the U.S. Constitution. "Forebears," a word that would only be used in historical context. "Founding documents," an echo of our Founding Fathers ... In all, this sentence, just a few sentences into the address, takes us emotionally back to the ideals upon which the Republic was founded.
Or what about this gem from later in the address:
"What the cynics fails to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them -- that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works."
Ha ha! I laughed out loud. Who could forget Reagan proclaiming that "government is the problem" or Bill Clinton declaring that the "era of big government is over"? In this one phrase, Obama pre-empted the argument over the size of government -- a losing argument for Democrats traditionally -- while simultaneously leveling a stinging criticism at the incompetency of George Bush's federal government.
In my own writing, I've begun to pay much more attention to embedded, deeper meanings of words. Coded language speaks directly to emotion, to the synapse-memory of your reader. And sometimes whole conversations, whole ways of life, can be compressed into a single word or single image. Moreover, a well-written book contains its own invented coding. The point isn't to speak to the reader's intellect, but to reach for their gut.
In a practical sense, I think this argues for extreme economy on the page. Choose your descriptors, adjectives, verbs and adverbs very carefully. Aim for repetition, for simplicity. Because once the reader goes down your rabbit hole, you aren't dealing with them on a conscious level any more, but instead communicating directly with their subconscious. And I think this is where good books -- and good speeches -- are written.