Over the past several years, I have been interviewing, observing, and writing about business, academic, and political leaders who have the ability to influence their audience—leaders who fire up the rest of us. Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is one of them. For a look at what makes Obama's public speaking skills so effective, I outline four techniques he's mastered and explain ways to use them in your own repertoire.
Hold Out Hope
Like Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan, Obama speaks in the uplifting rhetoric of hope. After his defeat in New Hampshire, Obama's political oratory was so hopeful he sounded more like a winner than a runner-up. Obama knew a hopeful message would embolden his supporters. In a speech on Jan. 8, 2008, Obama said, "We know the battle ahead will be long. But always remember, no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change… We have been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope."
You are the leader people want to believe in. Your customers and employees are bombarded by bad news—the credit crunch, a housing slump, an economic slowdown—but they are eager to hear something positive. That doesn't mean leaders stick their heads in the sand—far from it. Inspiring leaders acknowledge the situation but also remind people of reasons to be optimistic.
Use Rhetorical Devices
Many observers say Obama sounds like King. He does because he uses some of the same techniques that made King an electrifying speaker.
1. Parallel structure We can thank the ancient Greeks for this rhetorical tool—they called it "anaphora." It simply means repeating the same word or expression at the beginning of successive sentences or phrases. One of the most famous examples is King's "I Have a Dream" speech. "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed…. I have a dream that… I have a dream…" Obama uses the same device frequently. In his Iowa victory speech on Jan. 3, Obama said, "You have done what the cynics said we couldn't do. You have done what the state of New Hampshire can do in five days. You have done what America can do in this new year."
Anaphora's sister technique is called "epistrophe." It is the repetition of a word or expression at the end of a successive sentences or phrases. For example, in Obama's New Hampshire speech, the expression "Yes, we can" rallied thousands of supporters when used like this: "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.
2. Alliteration. Both Kennedy and King were fond of this device that strings together words that start with similar sounds. At the 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote speech that brought Obama to prominence, he said, "Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or do we participate in a politics of hope?" In 2005, during a commencement speech at Knox College, Obama described America as "a place where destiny was not a destination, but a journey to be shared and shaped…" When speaking at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in August, 2006, Obama proclaimed, "The history of America is one of tragedy turned into triumph." In January's New Hampshire speech, Obama used alliteration again: "We have been told we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics."
3. Rich Imagery Persuasive speakers have long understood the power of imagery to stir emotions—the creation of mental pictures through the words. In his 2004 speech, Obama described what he meant by the audacity of hope: "It's the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs, the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores, the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta, the hope of a millworker's son who dares to defy the odds, the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too."
Exude Confident Body Language
In debates Obama appears unflappable, answering tough questions while maintaining strong eye contact. He doesn't fidget or shake his head when listening to sharp attacks from his opponents. While seated, he leans slightly forward. People will make an impression of you after only a few seconds. Pay attention to what your body is saying (BusinessWeek.com, 4/30/07). Communicate confidence, competence, and control.
Use Dynamic Vocal Delivery
A monotonous speaking style lulls the listener to sleep, regardless of the power of the content. Obama knows how to enhance (BusinessWeek.com, 5/16/06) his delivery. Consider these three aspects of his delivery.
1. Pacing. Obama varies the speed at which he speaks. Very few sentences are delivered at exactly the same pace.
2. Volume. In his victory speech after the Iowa caucuses, Obama raised the volume of his speech with each sentence in the following paragraph: "We are one nation. We are one people. And our time for change has come."
3. Pauses. Nothing is as dramatic as a well-placed pause, and Obama knows it. He pauses at key moments to make a memorable impact.
Obama connects with millions of people thanks to his public speaking skills. Consider learning from him to influence your own audience.