Amanda Gorman burst onto the international stage with her 6-minute poem at the Joe Biden and Kamala Harris inauguration and while enjoying her performance and her poetry could be enough for all of us, there are also valuable lessons to be elicited from the structure of her words, and the use of her vocalization.

Amanda Gorman recites her inaugural poem, "The Hill We Climb," during the 59th Presidential Inauguration ceremony in Washington, Jan. 20, 2021. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took the oath of office on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol. (DOD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II)

As she said in her Ted-Ed talk, “using your voice is a political choice” and what a politically charged stage it was that hosted her brilliant yellow coat and shiny red hair-band, all contributing to the vibrancy of her persona that day.

Watch the presentation here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UE8TFMStYyo

Reverse engineering great speeches is a valuable tool in improving our own writing and speaking. I’m going to approach her as if she were one of my clients who had uploaded a dry run of a speech or performance and was seeking input. Gosh that sounds pompous. Forgive me.

Gorman uses many dyads, contrasting and linking light and shade, quiet and peace, and “just is” with justice. Many of her words are visceral, visual, concrete as she paints a picture of a country at a dangerous juncture with an uncertain future yet holds out the hope that it is not broken, simply unfinished.

Also notice her use of cadence, as she speeds up to a slam poetry style of staccato delivery, then eases off into a more thoughtful, extended pause.  Notice also her use of alliteration: a “union not perfect but with purpose”, “to compose a country committed to all cultures, characters, colours and conditions of man”. While not hostage to rhyming, she does manage to squeeze some rhythmic plays in as punctuation and tempo markers.

The poem is full of clever turns of phrase, many of them paired in contrast, some of them plays on the words themselves. Her body language extended to the lyrical use of her hands and fingers, like a conductor enticing a softness and lyricism from random instruments.

You don’t have to be a poet laureate, a president or even a poet of any kind to take some time with your language, your choice of phrase, and shake the laziness of cliché and process language in favour of painting spoken pictures through the use of concrete, visual language and active verb structures.

And you don’t have to be a performer to perform. What are you doing with your body? Your face? Your hands? Are you adding to your appearance or distracting from it?

Gorman’s were not the only great turns of phrase. I was particularly taken with Biden’s exhortation that America is not judged “by the example of our power…but the power of our example”.

Today’s well-turned phrase is tomorrow’s permanent quotation.

Joanna Piros