What Every Speaker Can Learn from Barack Obama

What Every Speaker Can Learn from Barack Obama

On October 2, 2002, at the very same time that President George W. Bush and Congress were announcing their joint resolution to authorize the invasion of Iraq, Obama, then an Illinois State senator, spoke at an antiwar rally in Federal Plaza in Chicago. The New Republic reported an eyewitness account: Jesse Jackson was to be the day’s marquee speaker. But it was Obama, wearing a war-is-not-an-option lapel pin, who stole the show. Obama’s 926-word speech denounced a “dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.” The electrified crowd knew that a political star was born.

Barack Obama is, by any standard, a very good, if not a great speaker. But his talent did not spring from birth or from mystical magical powers. Obama uses a set of accessible techniques that you, too, can use.

1. Verbalization: Obama practices verbalization. In a Washington Post story he was quoted as saying, “My general attitude is practice, practice, practice ... Besides campaigning, I have always said that one of the best places for me to learn public speaking was actually teaching –– standing in a room full of 30 or 40 kids and keeping them engaged, interested and challenged.”

2. Person-to-person, head nods, read the reaction/adjust your content. A New Yorker magazine profile of Obama gave an example of his campaign for his Illinois Senate seat. When speaking to a group of AFL-CIO building tradesmen who had supported his opponent in the state primary, Obama adjusted his content to include a pro-labor message. The result: “Heads began nodding slowly, jaws set, as he drove home his points.”

3. Think “You.” Obama used that persuasive word strategically throughout his campaign for the Democratic nomination: on his Web site and in his speeches.

4. Speak with your body language.

  • Eye Contact: Obama’s strong eye contact is apparent in every type of speaking situation.
  • Reach Out: Time magazine reported,“Physically, he is uncommonly restrained: He keeps his hands close to his head, and his shoulders are always tight and squared.”
  • Animation: In all settings, large and small, Obama is always animated, his face expressive, breaking into a ready smile or expressing the meaning of his words with passionate emphasis.

5. Control your cadence and complete the arc. Emulating Reagan, Obama rolls out his words in long arcs, like a ship riding the waves on the high seas, completing each arc by dropping his voice, and punctuating each point forcefully. The pauses between the arcs allow his listeners to absorb the meaning of his words, if not to become captivated by his compelling rhythm.

How to Prepare Your Content

Many presenters and speakers, pressured by the demands of business and daily life, often beg, borrow, or steal a colleague’s material or put off their own preparation until the eleventh hour. Your presentation will be much stronger if you spend enough time to organize, develop, and think through your content. During the preparation, clear your mind by eliminating all the superfluous material and identifying the essential. Here are seven ways to prepare your content for presentation:

1. Establish the framework of your presentation. Define your objective. What is your call to action? What does your audience need to know in order to respond to your call to action?

2. Brainstorming: Consider all the possibilities. Distill all your ideas into a few main themes.

3. Roman Columns: Find a mnemonic device for your main themes. If you visit Rome today and tour the ruins of the great Forum, you are likely to hear your guide talk about the classic Roman orators who spoke in the Forum for hours on end without any notes. To help them remember what to say, the orators used the stately marble columns of the Forum as prompts. The object of your brainstorming is to develop the Roman columns of your own story; about five or six in all is optimal.

4. Flow Structure: Provide a road map for your audience and for you. Give the individual components of your story a meaningful, orderly flow. Two of the simplest and most common flow structures are chronological (track your story along a timeline) and numerical (Combine all your Roman columns and assign them a number, then count down for your audience as you discuss each column). Think of David Letterman’s Top Ten.

5. Graphics: Use visual aids, but give your graphics their proper role as support for your narrative.

6. Ownership: Take charge of your own presentation. Become a hands-on presenter and supervise your presentation’s development at pivotal points.

7. Verbalization: Practice the right way. In your rehearsals, speak the actual words of your presentation or speech aloud, just the way you will do it when you are in front of your intended audience. Verbalization crystallizes ideas.

“Good speakers are born, not made,” and its extended variation, “That person has natural charisma” are often said about a presenter’s delivery skills. The corollary implication of this view is “Change is impossible.” You either have it or you do not. For some unearthly reason, many people cling to this preconception, and recite it, almost as a pledge of allegiance. Change is possible for anyone.

Bill Clinton, with his usual rhetorical flair and an established reputation as a superstar of the keynote circuit, seemingly did not need any makeovers. But Clinton was not born with this capability. He admits as much in his autobiography, calling his first speech effort while in high school “unremarkable.” He was still far less than remarkable in 1988 when, as the governor of Arkansas, he gave a nominating speech for Michael Dukakis at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. Clinton rambled on for so long that the delegates began to chant, “We want Mike!” And when he finally said, “In closing …” the crowd roared their approval. In his autobiography, Clinton confessed, “It was 32 minutes of total disaster.”

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