Barack Obama as a Genuinely Great Speaker

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(My dad posted this on Daily Kos, so forgive me in advance for promoting my own dad. This is a great analysis of the technical why of Obama's ability to inspire through speech.)

(Cross-posted from Daily Kos, authored by Randy Mayeux)

I teach speech at one of the campuses in the Dallas County Community College system.  I am an adjunct professor, and my graduate training is in Rhetoric and Public Address.  I also make my living as a speaker/ trainer.  So — I teach, I speak, and I train.  I have also done some speech coaching for Democratic candidates and business clients.  

Yesterday, I attended Obama's rally at Reunion Arena.  (17,000+ people!)  I also attended Huckabee's speech last night in Plano, TX.  For years, I have attended every event I could to observe the speaking style of presidential candidates.  In 1996, I heard Bill Clinton and Bob Dole within a two-week period.  What a contrast!

We all know that Obama is a superior speaker.  What does he do that makes him so?  The list is long, but let me mention three specific tools that he has in his arsenal.#1:  Barack Obama has textbook perfect posture.  This is not a small issue.  The better the posture, the more the audience perceives self-confidence.  Look at a speaker who is not standing up straight, and the impression is one of tentativeness.  Such speakers look tired, and unsure of themselves.  (Compare Obama's posture to John McCain's).  Obama stands tall, and absolutely exudes self-confidence.  By the way, he comes across as self-confident, but does not come across as arrogant.  This is a hard balance to hit.

#2:  Barack Obama has a powerful speaking voice.  First, the obvious:  you can understand each word clearly.  But his voice is also loud, strong, assertive, clear, from his first word to his last word.  He never once moved the microphone too far from his mouth.  Thus, he made maximum use of the sound system.  This does not mean that he was shouting.  He uses great vocal variety and terrific verbal punch.  His pauses are effective.  But his voice is distinctive, and strong.  It compels the attention of the audience.

#3:  Barack Obama is a master of the use of repetition.  He uses key phrases, and repeats them to great effectiveness, over and over again.  

In my classes, I hand out the text of Dr. King's “I Have A Dream” to my students.  (available at AmericanRhetoric.com).  And then, I give this instruction:  follow along with me, and circle the phrases that I tell you to circle.  Then we go through the text, and everyone circles numerous phrases that Dr. King repeated time and again in that great speech.  “Now is the time,” “I have a dream,” “one day”, “go back,” — phrase after phrase repeated time and again.  Just a glance of all the circled phrases is visual confirmation of this tool.  This may not be an effective practice for written material, but it is a brilliant speaking practice.  

Barack Obama did this yesterday in his speech.  He used key phrases time and again to great effectiveness.  “We're here because,” “Are you ready for change/if you're ready for change,” “I know how hard,” “That is how/that's how,” “If you are willing…”  (His speech was substantially the same as what he delivered in Houston the night before.  Read the Houston manuscript here).  Print it out, and circle the repeated phrases.  The use of repetition is obvious — and very effective.  Spoken with the right cadence, which Obama has, repetition is a powerful speaking tool.

You can list other tools in his arsenal.  He has great, grand gestures.  He has terrific stage command.  He connects with every part of his audience.  But the entire experience is unforgettable  I really was in the presence of a gifted and accomplished speaker.

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An observation:  for my entire adult life, when one candidate in the general election is a noticeably better speaker than the opponent, that candidate has always won.  Any agreement/disagreement with this?

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7 Comments

  1. Obama – A Great Speaker
    You are absolutely right in your analysis of Obama's speaking skills.  He is a great orator and possibly the best speaker of any politician in a generation.  

    I was at the Dallas rally and though he used notes, he was pretty much speaking from memory, but it looked extemporaneous.  That takes real talent to pull that off.

    I have also notice that his team positions him out in the arena in the middle of the people.  This works well to make his televised appearances have more visual depth.  The platform is raised enough that cameras most of the times have to point upward and that gives him a more heroic look.  It is a very well orchestrated campaign.  I see that as a sign of really good advisors and from the people in his campaign I have met, they are enthusiastic to part of a movement, not just a campaign.

  2. thoughts?
    What are your thoughts on Obama using rhetoric from Governor Patricks 2006 campaign speech?

    Did I miss the post from BOR about this accusation?

  3. Any agreement/disagreement with noticeably better speakers getting elected
    I think the 2000 campaign was the nadir of candidate speech.  Al Gore came across as wooden while Junior came across as just folks.  And we've been listening to his mangling of the English language ever since.

    Yes, I've noticed Obama's skillful use of repetition to build to a point.  His speechwriters are also extremely talented.

    Last spring or summer, on one of the first times that Congress tried to impose timetables for withdrawal from Iraq in a funding bill, Obama issued a public statement to the effect that “We are one signature away from ending this war.”  Brilliant turn of phrase.

  4. Great Post
    Very informative, thanks for breaking this down for the laymen.  I think we're going to see candidates focus a lot more on public speaking in the future, after seeing how far it's gotten Obama.  He has a lot of substance too, but he's beating Hillary right now because he connects with people in a way that no other politician is right now.

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