If presidents of the United States were decided on speaking style alone, Barack Obama wouldn’t just be moving into the White House tomorrow, he’d be there for a long time. His speaking style is perfect, and it’s been demonstrated. You see, Obama is one of those rare people who comes along and has that rare gift to be able to blow your socks off with just words. You’ll see that quite a few U.S. presidents through history are described that was (Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy), which is precisely why they were voted in – because they had the ‘good gift of the gab’.
I say ‘good’ because, as we all know, there are two ways that someone can be verbally gifted. There’s the person who can sell ice to eskimos – the man who can get you to believe anything by the way they speak. The way this is used is bad. A couple of good examples of this are Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Great speakers, bad motives. Then there are the Obama’s in the word who have the ‘gift’ but use it to inspire, to change, and to lead everyone to a better place.
Unfortunately (as evidenced by current President Bush) speaking isn’t what gets you voted in all the time. But Barack Obama has forged his path to his party’s nomination through his impressive rhetoric and speaking style. A look at any number of speeches that he made pre-primary race voting showed that he was clearly a gifted speak. His 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address was the single thing that not only propelled him into party spotlight, but put his name in the minds of voters to get him to run in the 2008 primaries. If he had delivered a mediocre speech, or hadn’t been as impressive as he was, then you wouldn’t see him in the race now. In 4 or 8 more years, yes you would. But in a short 4 years, by the delivery of one speech, he was able to get in on the act and become the Democratic nominee.
Don’t forget, either, that the D.N.C. that Obama spoke at was Senator John Kerry’s – who went on to lose the election, and had accusations leveled at him that he stood for nothing. You could be forgiven for thinking that anyone associated with that convention and Kerry’s nomination is now tainted – in fact, it’s true for everyone except Obama. Kerry isn’t a ‘big name’ in the Democratic party anymore, John Edwards bombed out in the 2008 primaries, Jim Jordan was Kerry’s campaign adviser through the primaries, and now can hardly get a serious candidate to work for. But Obama, who came out strong for Kerry, and became the face of the ’04 D.N.C. remain unscathed.
Why is Obama such a successful speaker though? One reason is that he isn’t talking on lines of depression, depth, and despair – Obama speaks about hope. It’s no coincidence that Obama has always spoken in such a style that his campaign slogans says “Hope is on the way”. Obama speaks and gives his listener hope. He’s uplifting, he inspires, he motivates. Like J.F.K., and like Martin Luther King Jr. and Ronald Reagan, he is always talking to rally people. Take a look at his ‘concession’ speech after New Hampshire. Obama was meant to win, and win big. He didn’t, and he lost to Clinton. But his speeches afterwards made him sound like the winner. If you had just watched him, you could be convinced that he was playing a joke and he romped the state home.
In a time of fear, which is what the United States is in now, the person who will become leader is the one who can speak to reassure, to calm, and to speak about the positives. The leader will be someone who gives hope to the masses. Obama gives hope on civil issues – look at his ‘A more perfect union’ speech. He gives hope to the political process – why polling consistently rates him the most trusted candidate. He even gives hope to people for himself – why he has tended to dominate national polling against both Clinton and John McCain.
It’s not just delivery with Obama either – it’s presentation. When he speaks, he looks like he believes what he is saying, so why shouldn’t you? And that’s because he does believe in what he is speaking about. Watch, and you’ll see that he brings in civil rights, ‘honest politics’, hope, and change into all of his speeches. You look at him, you can associate those things to him. He looks like he believes in all of this, and he does. He stands tall (and tall he is), he doesn’t squirm or move around. He is still and calm when being attacked, as if he is listening so as to take on the criticism and better himself. You see that specifically and you think “Here is someone who cares about what people have to say”. Even in debates, Obama stands there, and when you watch him, he doesn’t get lost or confused, or give wandering answers, or get pressured or rushed. He is calm, cool, and collected. And that’s something that translate into being the sort of leader a country wants.
Obama is more successful than other candidates because he connects with his audience. Granted, people who are listening to him are generally already fans, or interested in what he will say. But for the most part, he is able to form a strong connection with these people from the podium. He’s very smart in the way he actually builds this connection up though. All the above gets you listening and believing in him, but he makes you his ‘friends’ by throwing in anecdotes and jokes and ‘fun’ things. Every time Obama is up and speaking, watch and wait – invariably he will tell a story that is uplifting, or a joke that makes you laugh, or do something personal that will get ‘familiarity’ resonating in the audience. This is a very successful technique – President Bush managed to beat Gore in mid-Western and Southern swing states because, as polling data showed, people said they people like they could sit down with Bush and “have a beer with him.” Bush had become a ‘friend’ of the voters. Obama is well on the way to doing that too.
And in finishing a speech, Obama is, again, different to his competitors. He ends on a tone of hope, just like he carries it through. He doesn’t end on a note of fear (like McCain often does) or threat (like Clinton does – saying to vote for her or you’ll suffer). He ends on an uplifting statement. An example:
I also ask you to remember that in this country, our history of overcoming the seemingly impossible always comes about because individuals who care really can make a difference. America is great because Americans are good.
And if this is what’s ringing in your ears as you leave, you’ll be more likely to go out and do something. Volunteer, drum up support, vote. If Obama ends with you inspired to do something – and that something is to help him – you’re more likely to do it than if you’re afraid to do anything at all.
On a basic language use level, his speeches have some classic trademarks. Anaphora – repeating same words and expressions at the beginning of successive sentences. Martin Luther King Jr. did it with “I have a dream”. Epistrophe, and the repeating of a word or phrase at the end of a sentence, also comes into play; most commonly with “Yes we can!” It’s another of his campaign slogans, and it’s something that the audience has come to yell out on their own. It brings a new level of participation to his speeches – a level that his opponents don’t have. A great example is in his concession speech from New Hampshire:
It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes, we can. It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights: Yes, we can. It was sung by immigrants as they struck out for distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness: Yes, we can.
By the end of that speech, as I mentioned, everyone forgot that he was the loser. The crowds there, and the audiences around the world watching were so motivated and revved up and inspired by the speech, and by just this close, that his polling numbers blew through the roof.
His pacing, and pauses, are perfect every time he has something to say. After rallying everyone to a cheer, he will wait long enough to let it die down, then a little longer to let everyone calm down, and then a little longer so that you know what he has to say now is serious. That’s when he brings out a story of the battle for hope, a story he heard ‘on the trail’, and how this person, or that story, is driving him further. He’ll tell the story slower, and more spaced out, than if he were on policy, and a different speed again he speaks of hope and change. And after this, after his personal tale, he will work the crowd up again to a cheer by adjusting his own volume. He gets louder so that the audience gets louder. And then he gets louder again, and the cheering follows in volume.
So I made the claim in the opening of this post that Obama’s speaking style is perfect. I hope I made a good case for it. When I see him, I’m inspired, as are millions of others. His policies have no immediate effect on me, and I have no part in the U.S. political system. So what about him appeals to me? The way he speaks.