Unless you are a fully paid up member of the Tea Party or an anchor on Fox News, we can agree that Obama is a great orator. As I’ve said before, if you want to know how to deliver a lecture here is a good blueprint: a good structure, digestible facts, understandable figures, relevant stories and a clear vision. It would be a surprise if it were any other way, since the President has a small army of speechwriters working for him.
Dipping into the Republican race for nomination, or taking in ten minutes of the barmy but perfectly-formed Fox News, is a great way to reinforce your faith in our politicians, political process and the BBC. I can only imagine the work Andrew Marr would need to have done to get on air at 9am on a Sunday morning in the USA.
In fact, the slick PR machine in the White House has created a short video about how the whole shebang was created: the iterative speech-making process on YouTube. Dissecting the whole lot is not a good use of my time or yours. If you want it, you can get my view on how a typical Obama effort is made in the critique of the form and structure of one of his best and certainly most important, A More Perfect Union.
There are a few aspects of this performance that are interesting from a public speaking perspective and I encourage you to read what follows and then look at how he delivers. Obama has helped polarise politics in America and has had criticism heaped upon him. Much of it, by any objective measure, is disproportionate and motivated by more than his policies. But some of it has hit home and doubtless focus groups in the Democratic Party machine have confirmed.
Passion, or the lack of it, is one area where Obama gets a hard time. The other is being indecisive: getting things done, calling people up, using some of his muscle as Commander in Chief. Never mind whether they are true or not, if that’s what the voting population think then the President, if he wants to keep his job, needs to attend to both perceived flaws. He tries to address both in this speech and I am sure that in the analysis in the run up the above two traits will have been foremost in the minds of Obama and his team.
On passion, this is an Obama trying a bit too hard to go for it. Especially at the beginning it appears to be forced: too loud, too strident and the man himself is bobbing about a bit too much. In the formal and austere surroundings, all stern faces and polished wood, it is an interesting juxtaposition. It would hardly have been a surprise if he had grabbed a hand-held mike and started roaming around the stage, something he is apt to do in shirtsleeves in a barn in Ohio when canvassing. After he settles into it there is a more measured form of enthusiasm, but it’s nearly twenty minutes before he really is in the flow. What is interesting for those keen to improve their abilities as big-audience speakers is that here we have one of the best making a conscious effort to change his delivery style. He went for it a bit in his 2011 State of the Union but this year the dial goes up a notch of two. Be in no doubt that Obama is consciously using his voice and his body to convey passion, enthusiasm and that he is up for it. He tells the country he feels their pain, he probably does feel their pain but he needs to show them he feels their pain. It is likely he has had a few dress rehearsals and did some clips in front of the mirror and the wife. Just like the rest of us.
The hard edged, assertive tone might also help in assuring the audience- not the one in the room- that he is the type to get down to business and get things done. He is a man of action; he is the man who got Bin Laden. There is more to it than just body language and voice, though. He has some words to reinforce the impression of a man who is keen to enact legislation and give the impression that it is not his fault things have been slow around Capital Hill. At the end of any points he makes we often get a short, sharp sentence that at least implies an action: “And we have to reclaim them.” “So let’s change it.” “And we know how to fix it.”
There’s a bit more than that and sales people all over will know what it is: a call to action. Obama knows that the man and woman in the street are saying he has not done enough, not pushed enough, cajoled enough, banged enough heads together. And perceived inaction is not going to get you a second term. “I will sign it right away.” “… get it on my desk this year.” “So far, you haven’t acted. Well tonight, I will.” What Obama is doing here is saying he is that man of action who is needed for tough times, and here is the words that are doing it, not the delivery. There is a great rhythm created by the short sentences, and they invoke the “but let us begin” sentence delivered by John F Kennedy in his inaugural address. Of course, he also leans heavily on the killing of Bin Laden as an illustration of that action-man persona.
Once again Barack Obama has given a textbook lecture. But do look with interest on the remarks he makes through a prism of passion and action. You will see that even the best have to work hard at what they do and can always improve on it. This enthusiastic man of action was directing that passion and action at the American people. And, of course, his Republican adversary, whoever that may be.
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