The world’s media seem pretty much agreed about one thing following the election of Barack Obama as the next president of the United States: Barack is a great speaker, and his oratory has served him well.
Yesterday’s headline in the Sunday Times read: “Orator in the mould of history’s best”, and continued, ”Even in the age of YouTube and the soundbite, Barack Obama has proved that soaring, sustained oratory still has great power. His victory address to crowds in Chicago last week was widely regarded as one of the finest speeches in modern politics, delivered by a master.”
Barack Hussein Obama “is a speaker of genius”, declares Andrew Gimsom of the Daily Telegraph. “Obama’s extraordinary oratory made us feel less jaded, and less willing to humour those who made us jaded in the first place” asserts Marina Hyde of the Guardian.
In America they agree. “His soaring rhetoric is moving his audiences not just politically, but emotionally,” says CBS News.
Chris Matthews of CNBC talks about “the feeling most people get when they hear a Barack Obama speech. I felt this thrill going up my leg. I mean – I don’t have that too often!”
One in a line
This isn’t his policies they are talking about: it’s the effect of his delivery on them. Barack is one in a line of politicians who have made their way to power through oratory, and his speeches look back and quote other great presidential orators, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, and civil rights activist Martin Luther King.
There are parallels in British politics. David Cameron was an outside candidate for the Tory leadership until he gave an unusually good speech. Ian Duncan Smith (remember him?) was considered a potentially good leader until he gave a bad one. Gordon Brown’s reputation has suffered from his lack of ability meet the occasion as a speaker. Tony Blair’s rise to power was helped considerably by his ability to connect well with his audience.
Good public speakers get promoted in business and politics. It happens again and again, and I’m sure you could quote examples from your own experience.
So, what is Obama’s secret?
What can we learn from Obama? Well, his speeches are brilliantly crafted, but that’s not the whole story. Let’s look at some of his skills.
Obama knows how to speak directly to us; he comes across as himself; he looks at ease; his words and his body language are in harmony; he has brilliant timing; you wouldn’t know that the speech was pre-written, it sounds spontaneous.
How can YOU do the same?
How can you learn to be a great communicator? Can you learn? … great speakers are born, not made, they say…
I don’t subscribe to that saying. I think there is a great speaker in most of us, and that such things as spontaneity, authenticity and connection can be learned. The reason I believe it is because I have seen it happen many times – in my workshops and one-to-one with people.
People often go to the great acting companies for help with public speaking, but acting specialists don’t necessarily have the answers for those who wish to be great orators. Great oratory is not acting: it uses speaking skills, true, but it relies more on a way of being. It happens so often that people learn in speaking courses how to act in public: they pronounce their words with great emphasis, they employ their practised gestures, they utilise the stage directions and pauses they have learned; but in the end they don’t connect with their audience and certainly don’t stir them or influence them. Not at all.
To be an orator in the mould of an Obama, Kennedy or Luther King you need to learn how to convert your heart beats into powerful communication. You need to have the ability to connect with this particular audience on this day. More than anything, you need to know how to be at ease with yourself. These abilities come from skill and they come from self belief, which can also be learned. Then you will be the best of you, and others will be attracted to what you have to say. It works every time.