In our public speaking gallery at Planet Word, we highlight some of the techniques that famous leaders and orators have used to inspire their listeners. Joe Biden’s victory speech was full of these time-honored techniques. In particular, he drew on the power of his presidential predecessors and other prominent figures by using allusion.
Allusion is a reference to a significant person, place, or thing. Speakers often use allusion to place themselves in a historical context and idea stream. They use phrases that have become part of our lexicon to embed themselves in — and associate their agendas with — political movements and leaders who have preceded them.
Here are a few examples from Biden’s acceptance speech on November 7:
- I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide but unify, who doesn’t see red states and blue states, only sees the United States.
Barack Obama (2004): “The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States. But I’ve got news for them… We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes.”
- Once again, America’s bent the arc of the moral universe more toward justice.
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968): “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
- And make no mistake, too many dreams have been deferred for too long.
Langston Hughes (1994): “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”
- Our nation is shaped by the constant battle between our better angels and our darkest impulses. And what presidents say in this battle matters. It’s time for our better angels to prevail.
Abraham Lincoln (1861): “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory… will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”