The Art of Repetition

What makes a great speech? There is no single answer to this and a range of ingredients are needed for a speech to be considered great and perhaps more for it to be immortal.

Speaker, delivery and occasion aside, it is true to say that a key feature of many of the great speeches is repetition.

Repetition as journalist Sam Leith says is not “banging the same point home again and again like a politician with a sound-bite” but a nuanced skill which takes into consideration alliterations (consonant sounds) assonance (vowel sounds) and a consideration of “the way a speech falls on the ear.”

Leith’s belief in this mantra is coined in his statement that the three R’s of rhetoric are “repetition, repetition and repetition.”

This ideal wasn’t lost on Barack Obama as he delivered his now famous ‘Yes we can’ speech in 2008.




Nor was it lost on his predecessor Martin Luther King Jr when he made sure America would not forget his dream.

The following table shows an analysis of three famous speeches from the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty first centuries. The common pattern of repetition can be seen in terms of a single word that appears frequently in all the speeches. Given that the Gettysburg address is a far shorter speech than the other two the fact that we is mentioned 11 times is quite noticeable and effective. In Lincoln’s speech the absence of one memorable phrase is somewhat apparent. Yet this does not mean longer repetition beyond a singular word is not a feature among the 250 words.

Speech Repetition of memorable phrase Repetition of memorable word
Obama Acceptance Speech (2008) 7 (Yes we can) 22 (America)
Martin Luther King Jr (1963) 8 (I have a dream) 19 (Freedom)
Abraham Lincoln (1863) 0 11 (We)


Firstly Lincoln uses the word “dedicate” or “dedicated” a total of six times, the word “nation” four times, “dead” or “died” four times. And yet the most effective and memorable aspect of the speech is the two triumvirates. The first reads; “we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow” before Lincoln rounds of the speech with a masterful example of the effectiveness of repetition by providing the greatest tribute to a political system ever given: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.”


In terms of repetition then Lincoln shows how there is more than one way to skin a cat and his approach was most memorably adopted in recent times by the Iron Lady herself in this most famous of put downs in the House of Commons.

The idea of the effectiveness of repetition is well known, even in musical composition with Bach and other classical composers along with more contemporary Jazz giants like Duke Ellington, Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock employing pedal points to give the musical number a unique and memorable identity.


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