The power of the tricolon

Mar 17, 2023 | Public speaking

When Barack Obama became the first black American to be elected President of the United States of America in 2008, faces in the Chicago crowd were wet with tears. He declared that change had come to America and his speech sought to break with the presidency of George W. Bush who had led America into the difficult and hugely unpopular invasion of Iraq. 

Obama is widely accepted as being one of the greatest public speakers since World War II, and in this speech he made great use of the rhetorical device called the tricolon. This is a series of three parallel words, phrases or clauses. 

Here are the opening lines: 

‘Hello Chicago!

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

It’s the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen […]

It’s the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled, and not disabled […]

It’s the answer that led those who’ve been told for so long by so many to be cynical and doubtful about what we can achieve […]’

(Here’s the link if you feel like a listen, for the full Obama effect!)

The effect of the tricolon is to improve the impact of writing and speaking.

It helps create layered images and create short stories, as Obama does when he recounts the three examples beginning with ‘It’s the answer…’. Each example differs from the one before, and yet contributes to a wider whole, a bigger picture. These stories are in themselves ‘proof’ and add credibility to Obama’s words. The tricolon is a literary device, an effective tool, for persuasion.

This technique was also favoured by John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address on 20 January 1961, which signalled the arrival in power of a new generation and a forty-four-year-old president. Arguably the most famous phrase ‘The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans’, seeks to draw a line under the past as Obama does.

It’s interesting to know, by way of a post script, that Kennedy had instructed his speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen, to find the secret of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address! Whether this was one of his secrets or not, many argue that Kennedy set the standard with which many modern presidential inaugurals are compared.