Nonverbal Obama: Aside From His Words

In his inaugural address, Obama was expert at using eye contact to draw in millions and tone of voice to drive home points
U.S. President Barack Obama looks on from the East Front of the U.S. Capitol after being inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States of America on January 20, 2009 in Washington, DC. John Moore/Getty Images

President Barack Obama's inaugural address today offered his first official opportunity to set the tone and share his vision for his fledgling Administration. In addressing fellow Americans for the first time as President—against the backdrop of a severe recession marked by massive layoffs, foreclosures, and numerous other problems—it was critical for Obama to inspire hope and project confidence.

The words he used were essential to his message. But his nonverbal behaviors were just as important, if not more so, in getting his message across. Research shows nonverbal communication conveys as much as 93% of the emotional meaning behind what is said. People respond strongly to what they see, or to the tone of voice that is used to speak the words they hear. Everything from dress, the amount of physical space between the speaker and audience, hand gestures, posture, facial expression, and tone of voice can make or break a leader's message. With Obama on center stage, here is what I, a researcher and commentator on leadership and nonverbal communication, observed watching his inaugural address on television.

Leaders in general will use different nonverbal behaviors and actions when addressing a crowd or making a speech than they would in a one-on-one situation. For example, Obama made good use of eye contact with individuals during his debates with John McCain in the fall. During the beginning of his address today, however, he reached out to a large audience by talking to the extreme left and extreme right of the crowds and not focusing on smaller sections or individuals. It seemed he was concentrating more on trying to connect deeply with the many millions listening and watching on the national mall than with those viewing on television.

Few Hand Gestures

Though it is indeed a difficult task to engage millions of people spanning a lot of space and the temptation to play for those many millions watching on television screens the world over must have been great, Obama was able to hold the attention of those watching in person. His intelligent use of eye contact, constantly spanning the entire crowd rather than looking just in one particular place or speaking mostly to those nearest him, made him appear entirely aware of the enormity of the crowd that was intently listening to his words and vision.

I also noticed Obama's use of hand gestures. Research has shown that hand gestures are used more than smiles to address a large crowd because they are more visible. Normally, hand gestures are used to convey power and dominance. Obama used his hand gestures infrequently, mainly keeping them inside his body line, to emphasize points or key words.

Instead of relying on hand gestures, Obama chose tone of voice as his most evocative and powerful nonverbal behavior. He altered it frequently to match his message. The taking of the oath of office was not his strongest moment. Obama started making his declaration too soon, and there were some awkward moments of confusion between him and Chief Justice Roberts during the rest of the swearing-in. However, Obama's confident tone during his inaugural speech helped him recover his air of command and impart strong meaning to his words.

Forceful Tone of Voice

In addition, he conveyed appropriate gravity when talking about all the problems and crises the nation faces, from a weak economy and costly health care to failing schools and poor energy policies. And his tone of voice became louder and his delivery more confident and steadfast when he declared that these problems and challenges will be met. In stark contrast, his tone became more quiet and inviting as he pledged to work closely with countries around the world.

I was also struck by Obama's facial expressions, or lack thereof. He did not smile excessively during his inaugural address, which appropriately and respectfully reflected the serious times in which we live. He conveyed a powerful sense of optimism and a compelling vision of a brighter future more through his tone of voice than any other nonverbal behavior. His words were, as usual, eloquent. His tone of voice especially drove those words to those in person in Washington and to people like me, watching on television or on the Internet around the world.

Obama's inaugural address was honest, motivational, and inspirational, which a speech by a leader at such a critical point of time needs to be. I felt that the tone of his first Presidential address to the people of the United States was serious yet optimistic, as befits the challenges ahead. When addressing followers for the first time, especially when bad news and distress are top of mind for those to whom he is speaking, a leader needs to be authentic, visionary, inspirational, and charismatic.

Through Obama's nonverbal communication, he conveyed to people who listened to and viewed his speech that he understands the seriousness of the crises and challenges ahead, the importance of reaching out to both allies and enemies, and that he is confident but not arrogant about his ability to lead.

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