How to speak like Obama

COMMONNESS - Bong R. Osorio (The Philippine Star) - May 5, 2014 - 12:00am

There is not another accomplishment that any person can have that will so quickly make a career and secure recognition than the ability to speak.—Anonymous                  

Filipinos watching and listening to the president of the United States Barack Obama speak on several occasions during his short visit to the country can’t deny the talent that he has for oration. In fact, many of us are enamored of his enunciation, gestures, and phrasing whenever he delivers a speech. And because of his power of speaking with principle and foresight, he rightfully earns his place beside John F. Kennedy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Bill Clinton and Martin Luther King, among many other leaders who express their thoughts with great charisma and effectiveness.

Different groups or individuals may have differing takes on Obama’s pronouncements, but everyone will agree that he delivers them with the right body language, mannerisms and tonality to enhance his key messages and calculated pacing.

Shel Leanne’s book, Say It Like Obama: The Power of Speaking With Purpose and Vision, treats readers to insights on how to use techniques for oration to advantage. The tome recognizes Obama’s facility for connecting to his listeners by using his own life and struggles and relating them to that of his audience. He has a knack for avoiding controversy and dealing with it in a manner that is both forceful yet non-hostile. This was evident in the way he handled the question on his position on the ongoing dispute between the Philippines and China.

Correctness is key to politics. One has to be watchful and calculating in the way words are phrased and delivered to avoid alienating people. Obama is known for straightforwardness. He has been culpable of using certain expressions that did not sit well with his audience, but to his credit he knows when to apologize — a shrewd and calculating move that generates respect and endears him even more to people.

Leanne was formerly on the faculty of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. His work serves as a purposeful guide and useful resource for public speaking. “It focuses on the specifics, the technical, and the physical,” he says. His techniques are imperatives not only in the political arena, but also in the world of business. We can all learn from Obama’s style, and in the process, make it our own. From the tips and principles below, he reinforces the notion that “the speech, in and of itself, can be its own work of art.”

Good eye contact is valuable. Obama thrives on connecting with members of his audience and is energized, not drained, by them. As he talks, he looks to one side of the room, sometimes with a slight nod of acknowledgement in that direction, and then to the other side. He distributes his eye contact, varies his gaze throughout his discussions. With his gaze, Obama pulls listeners into his talk and engages audience members more fully. Audiences see this as respectful — the behavior of a “welcoming” person. They likewise accept such gazes as trustworthy coming from somebody who’s willing to look them in the eyes.

Right gestures drive key messages home effectively. Obama’s movements that work include knocking on an imaginary door with a balled fist, pinching his fingers; placing imaginary words on air, and holding his palm like a stop sign. Similarly, placing his hand over his heart at key moments conveys the sincerity of his words. His excellent use of body language and voice make him come across as authentic.

Charisma plays a role in earning trust and confidence. It is a special quality of leadership that captures the popular imagination and inspires unswerving allegiance and devotion. A person who has some divinely inspired gift, grace, talent, magnetic charm or appeal is labeled charismatic. Obama scores high on this attribute. People perceive him as charismatic, one who truthfully underscores his confidence, self-assuredness, and worthiness in the skillful way he uses his voice, intonation and gestures. As an exceptional communicator he takes opportunities to convey his strong ethics, deepening the basis for people to have trust in him and be confident about what he does.

By keeping things personal we speak meaningfully about issues. Obama leverages personal pronouns —  “I”  “you” and  “we.” This helps him connect more closely with people in the audience, establishing a sense of one-to-one conversation. He brings empathy in his communication by employing details skillfully to demonstrate that he understands the experiences and perspectives of people listening to him.

Looking at the problem through a person’s perspective. Obama finds a common ground or a way to establish empathy with others by not being too formal, making the audience feel comfortable, making them feel like he is “one of them.” He believes that it’s important to project his genuine self, and to avoid being anything he’s not. In the end, that’s all that needs to be done, knowing that trying to “fake it” will not work. That way, the truth will come out faster than you can imagine.

Refer to history when seeking to convey vision in a compelling manner. It makes ideas more understandable and digestible. Listeners relate to Obama’s ideas more readily from a prism of shared history and cherished tradition. They connect better to the presentation of a vision with clear references to admired historical figures. Obama engages people in his creative visioning or establishes a sense of purpose for his country and people by appealing to their heart and soul, rather than the mind and the bottom line. In his actions, he lives out all the values he preaches and because of this, they believe in him and support him.

Speak in ways that create a sense of momentum and urgency to future action. This is a vital element and Obama does this repeatedly with great effect. He points to successes that continue to build his impetus, notes the increasing levels of support for his initiatives, which are demonstrated through the details of what he offers. All these give the impression that things are moving.

We can awaken people by dreaming their dreams more clearly than they dream them themselves. Obama looks for commonalities rather than differences. He focuses on key aspects such as shared dreams and values. In his speeches, he succeeds in presenting his life story as a “uniquely American story,” somebody with humble beginnings who made his way to extraordinary success. This helps him connect with audiences and endears him to millions of Americans.

Finishing strong will leave a lasting impression. Obama builds his speech to a high point and ends on that high. This leaves his listeners encouraged, moved, provoked, and focused on key themes. He often issues a call to action or directs listeners to “low-lying fruit” —the small actions they can take to aid a cause, which also helps increase the motivating impact of his communication.

 â€œTell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you’ve just told them” is a mantra of great presentation. Obama uses this to the hilt, reaching out and firing up fervent listeners with his stimulating vision, motivating rhetoric, and charismatic presence.

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Email bongosorio@yahoo.com or bong_osorio@abs-cbn.com for comments, questions or suggestions. Thank you for communicating.

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