Setting and sharing the stage: President Biden strives to unite

Comms experts break down the inauguration’s messaging highlights, speechwriting tactics and storytelling takeaways.

For five years, “unprecedented” was associated with displays of narcissism and bluster. But President Joe Biden reset the word on his Inauguration Day.

Never before has a president called out white supremacy for what it is – wrong. Never before has a president needed to cite domestic terrorism as a principal threat to individual safety and nationhood. Never before has the world seen a 78-year-old American president, the oldest man ever elected to the office, share a stage with a 22-year-old Black woman, the youngest national poet laureate, to reignite a tired nation via verse.

Biden’s inauguration serves as a masterclass in speechwriting, crisis communications and storytelling, according to a group of Ragan Consulting Group professionals. From Biden’s existential theme of unity to the repetition of words, the address appealed to the public’s ears and sensibilities.

“In a time of crisis, it’s important for leaders to talk about values. You heard the president talk about liberty, duty and honor,” said Nick Lanyi, a public relations veteran whose experience includes crisis communications at Porter Novelli. “He placed an emphasis on truth. There is truth, and there are lies. It’s important to link unity with the same facts, even if we disagree.”

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris also face a trust deficit. Just 20% of Americans trust the federal government, according to a September 2020 report from Pew Research Center. In the final weeks of the Trump administration, only 28% of Republicans said they trusted the government, compared with 12% of Democrats.

“When you have a crisis of trust, you have to be straight with people,” Lanyi said. “You have to rebuild that trust by admitting that there is mistrust. That’s when he said, ‘I know a lot of you didn’t vote for me, but I’ll be your president, and I’ll listen.’ That was an important gesture.”

Rob Friedman, a speechwriter who has written for Eli Lilly executives and prominent politicians, said the speech’s biggest achievement was its thematic focus and immediate repudiation of Trumpism with the opening words, “Today, we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause, the cause of democracy.”

“He’s identified the biggest crisis of all,” Friedman said. “Is it COVID-19, is it climate, the economy? No, it’s disunity. My job is to nurture unity and ease these divisions, or we won’t have a country at all.”

Friedman pointed out four writing techniques that the president and Vinay Reddy, his Indian-American speechwriter, used seamlessly throughout the address:

  • Sense of place, especially given the pandemic era’s isolation. Biden referenced the Capitol in the context of the Jan. 6 attack on democratic principles, its construction amid the Civil War, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and the women’s suffrage movement, which he then connected to Vice President Kamala Harris’s historic achievement. “It’s a natural for people who aren’t there – it creates images and stories,” Friedman said. “They could all imagine the same place – it’s a fun technique because it’s so rich with possibility.”
  • Rule of three. Biden displayed mastery of this triplet technique – while stating how close the nation was to collapse on Jan. 6 – when he said, “We’ve learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”
  • Anaphora. Word repetition helps the listener follow and anticipate the president’s remarks: “We’ll press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril and significant possibilities, much to repair, much to restore, much to heal, much to build, and much to gain.”
  • Antithesis. Opposite-pairing heightens drama: “For without unity there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos.”

Throughout his address, the president displayed authenticity and unprecedented “wokeness” for a man of his generation, said Kim Clark, a Ragan Consulting Group team member specializing in communications relating to diversity, equity and inclusion. When trying to strike a unifying tone, CEOs and other leaders often soften their language for fear of offending one side or the other, she said. But Biden was blunt.

“White supremacy and domestic terrorism – he specifically said them out loud and that we must confront them,” Clark said. “Having a white, straight man, a Catholic, say white supremacy and domestic terrorism are not OK sends reverberations across everybody. That’s what allyship is. Biden can say white supremacy because he’s white. It’s like a straight person saying gay marriage matters.”

Clark corresponded or spoke with some 40 people on Inauguration Day to gather their thoughts on the president’s address. For the most part, they expressed relief, said they felt emotional, and were realizing how much fear they’d been holding inside, she said.

Her mentor, Rev. Deborah L. Johnson, pointed out the significance of the line, “The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer.” Here, Biden was echoing “Harlem (A Dream deferred)” by Langston Hughes.

“[Biden] is giving a nod to [Black] culture and affirming its vibrancy and validating the point of that poem,” Clark said. “He is saying equity is the goal moving forward.”

He missed one opportunity, however.

Clark believes Biden should have acknowledged he was standing on indigenous land. In fact, the Anacostia River gets its name from the Nacotchtanks, who once lived in what is now Washington, D.C.

“A lot of people are doing that in their speeches and meetings, and saying which indigenous peoples lived where their headquarters are,” she said. “It’s a growing trend to give visibility to Native Americans.”

But Biden did speak for all humankind when he commented on life’s unpredictability. “There’s no accounting for what fate will deal you,” he said.

Friedman believes this line is the marquee phrase of the entire address, equivalent to John F. Kennedy’s 1963 inaugural address, during which he appealed to young Americans by saying, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

“There’s an emotional register to the way [Biden] communicates,” Friedman said. “It’s genuine to him. This is a guy who lost a wife and children early on and then a son to cancer.”

Which brings us to another unifying line, one showing humility and fortitude: “My fellow Americans, in the work ahead of us, we’re going to need each other.”

“This is something that people can relate to with their families, with their friends, with their neighbors,” Lanyi said. “He’s applying that really simple idea to the nation, reaching across the aisle and putting aside some of this anger. The house is on fire, and we need to work together to put it out.”

Inaugural addresses set the stage for what is to come in a presidency. In Biden’s case, the people he welcomed onto the stage matter just as much.

Biden said the word “story” nine times. But as an older white man, he needed someone else to shift the American narrative. Thus, he shared the day with Amanda Gorman, the young Black poet who’s become an overnight sensation.

Reading from “The Hill We Climb,” the Harvard graduate said: “We, the successors of a country and a time where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.”

“She brought this level of personal impact and pain,” Clark said. “She was speaking to that generation and representing that generation [saying] ‘we’re awake and we’re here and we’re engaged. This is the America that we want.’”

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