Skip to contentSkip to navigation

Responding to populism: Tips from Barack Obama’s former speechwriter

Written by

Alexandra Abdelwahab

At the end of January, President Barack Obama’s former senior speechwriter, Sarada Peri, visited Ottawa for a frank discussion on the current state of American politics, the rise of populist movements worldwide and what this trend may mean for Canadians.

Hosted by Canada 2020 and the Ryerson Leadership Lab, the event, Political Communication to Respond to the Populist Movement, saw Peri sit down with Canada 2020’s executive director Alex Paterson and reflect on her time at the White House. Their conversation is available for free download.

Peri’s talk included many important lessons for anyone working in government or public policy in 2019. It explained how populism manifests in the age of social media, and underscored the importance of social media to politics in 2019. Words have an impact. Clear messages, delivered at the right time and in a way that reflects an audience’s reality will motivate them. It can also shift attitudes and lead to real change.

Understanding populism

Peri argued that the nature of populism today is about rhetoric, not ideology. The goal of populist communication, whether on the political left or right, is to position the populist leader against the establishment. “A sort of throw out the bums, whoever they are, perspective on just about everything,” she said.

Essentially this definition of populism describes it in terms of ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’. In making their speeches and in talking to the public, the populist leader argues only they are qualified to define who fits into this ‘Us’ and who is ‘Them’. That means only they are qualified to change the status quo.

An alternative form of populism—such as that of President Donald Trump—adds a third category to this equation: ‘The Other’. In this variation, the populist leader demonizes the ‘The Other’ but also uses it as a tool to sow resentment against ‘Them’, by arguing that group, usually ‘The Elite’, favours ‘The Other’ over ‘Us’. In the U.S., President Trump has been using this strategy effectively to demonize immigrants and portray the Democrats as being soft on the issue.

Here in Canada, we will likely see a similar situation play out in the upcoming federal election with immigration poised to form a central theme.

Why populism works

Since populism is geared toward upending the status quo, it generally does not offer many nuanced solutions to societal problems. But this doesn’t mean it’s not an effective strategy.

Once you frame a problem in terms of ‘Us’ and ‘Them’, or ‘Us’, ‘Them’ and ‘The Other’, it becomes very easy to not only diagnose the problem, but also to provide a simple solution.

Populist movements are great at repeating their diagnosis of the problem— ‘Immigrants’ or ‘the 1 per cent,’ and offering solutions: ‘build a wall’ or ‘tax the rich’. In the age of 140 characters—280 characters now—these messages spread easily and are persuasive, even if they may not be true, or ignore the bigger context.

Trying to counter these simple messages with complex explanations won’t work.

The only way to effectively respond is to truly understand the reasons behind the public dissatisfaction that these movements tap into. Then you can work to address the cause and reach people.

Make your speech stand out

Here are 5 tips derived from Sarada Peri's presentation to make your speech stand out when responding to populist movements.

Embrace authenticity: In an age of #FakeNews, authenticity is the key to building trust. The public is suspicious of anyone that appears too slick. It is better to be yourself.

Keep it simple: When listening to a speech, most people will only remember one or two messages. Rather than really worrying about each message, it is better to ask yourself what feeling do you want them to remember after the speech is done. By starting with this premise, it makes it easy to know what you need to include in your speech, and what you can safely leave out.

Build communities: Today everyone is a publisher and everyone is a consumer. This means that people who were previously only thought of as passive audiences, now have the ability to tell their own stories. It also means people can seek out information that appeals to them, and social media platforms deliver tailored content based on algorithms. In fact, studies have shown, that within these communities, cues from peers are at least as powerful as those from political elites. Focus on building communities, rather than on simply spreading a message. This ensures people really feel connected and keep coming back.

Listening skills matter: Being able to understand what really matters to a community and why, and then showing that you are addressing that concern works. Too often people try to persuade others in the same ways that they are persuaded, only to fail. Instead you need to speak to them on their terms. What are their motivations? How does your solution benefit them?

Be there: Delivering a speech face-to-face, or having those discussions in person makes a difference. It shows people that you are committed to the issues and you care.

For more tips, reach out to our team of speechwriting experts.

——— Written by Alexandra Abdelwahab, former Consultant, NATIONAL Public Relations