Friday, March 6, 2009

5 reasons why you shouldn’t speak like Barack Obama

On January 20, 2009 1.8 million people gathered on the US Capitol grounds, the National Mall, and the parade route in Washington D.C. for the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama. Nearly 38 million Americans watched inauguration coverage on television, the most popular Inauguration Day on TV since Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 which drew 41.8 million viewers. In describing the event beforehand, the media likely used the word “historic” more times than at any other point in American history since the moon landing in 1969. The centerpiece of the proceedings was the inauguration speech, and this article is written in specific reference to this speech, rather than about the speaking style and technique used by President Obama in a more general sense.

   In the days following the inauguration, there was much discussion about the event and about the speech in particular. One comment I saw that referenced the speech was on a social networking site and was responding to a small business owners question about how to improve his public speaking skills. The comment recommended that the person should watch and learn from President Obama’s speech because that was great public speaking. At first glance, this may sound like good advice, but on closer examination it is of little use to someone who has to address small business groups. President Obama’s speech was made by a specific man, for a specific crowd on a specific occasion and to use that particular speech as a model for all one’s own speeches would lead to both tragic and comic results.

   To make the point at a simple and ridiculous level I could say that just because President Obama wore an overcoat for his speech, doesn’t mean that you should wear one for yours. This (joking aside) would actually be a valid piece of advice. What can be learned from this approach, however, goes far beyond such a trite example and because this particular speech is so well known, it provides a framework to put forward some valuable points to a large number of people. When coaching people in public speaking, it is important to emphasize that, though modeling other people can be effective, one cannot rely on any one style or system. Instead, it is more important to have a thorough understanding of one’s own style and abilities, combined with knowledge of the material in question, the points that need to be made, the nature of the crowd, and the environment they are in. Technically, I suppose, these are illustrations rather than reasons, but the title “Five aspects of the inauguration speech that illustrate why most people shouldn’t speak in the majority of situations the way Barack Obama did in this one speech ” seemed a bit wordy. At this point I shall be examining the specific style and techniques employed by President Obama in his inauguration speech and by doing so I will, hopefully, shine some light on how to make the most of your own speeches.

1 – Don’t stand behind a wall, a bullet-proof barrier and a lectern.


    A speech is about far more than just speaking; movement and body language can help to transmit a great deal of mood and information to your audience. While it is not very often that we have to deal with the first two items in question, the third is not uncommon. A lectern is not without its place; they can be most effective in providing a more serious air to a speech and are quite handy for a script or notes but the majority of presentation situations require a more comfortable and communicative face. It is preferable to be seen from head to toe and, of course, to learn how to express yourself effectively through gesture and movement. While there are some basic do’s and don’ts, each person has their own style of movement. Some people can move around and gesture a tremendous amount and look very comfortable, while others would look horribly nervous doing exactly the same thing. Find out what factors define your own style of movement and learn how to use them to their greatest advantage.

2 - Smile at least once every twenty minutes.


   Unless you are at an event that demands an extremely subdued mood, there is no reason to turn your speech into the dour hour. In moderation, smiling helps to put people at ease and creates a more positive mood. How broadly and how often you should smile depends on a number of factors but certainly it is important to consider your subject and your crowd and take into account your own appearance. Some people have a naturally happy look and others possess a natural severity. If you have a face that seems to smile all the time, you don’t have to reinforce it by smiling a great deal and, conversely, making a real effort may be very helpful to someone with a more sour countenance. 



3 – Don’t write a speech with constant historical references.


  When you are making a business presentation your audience wants to know what has just happened, what is happening now, and what could happen in the near future. While some background can be useful to provide context, boost morale, or illustrate a point, talking too much about the civil war will just make you look as though you are ignoring what is important. In this regard, also be mindful of the make-up of your audience. As a general rule, the older the crowd, the more they will relate to the referencing of the past and a younger crowd tends to be more interested in hearing about the future.



4 – Make eye contact with at least one person in the audience.


  Eye contact is a powerful thing. While people tend not to like being stared at, they do appreciate, during a speech, an occasional look to give them the feeling that they are being included. To stare outward in the direction of the crowd, but not actually make contact with any one single person will only work against you. Eye contact can also be used in very specific ways during a presentation. If, for example, you have one table or group that is not paying attention, make solid eye contact with one member of the group; consciously or subconsciously this will help to focus all of them. Eye contact should seem natural and not in a pattern or on a schedule and with some people, it can be balanced with a “thoughtful” absence of eye contact which effectively brings people in.


5 - Don’t try to stir emotions and then pause for applause too often.


   In small weekly boardroom meetings it’s probably best not to do it at all. Taking oneself too seriously is a quick route to looking foolish and structuring a speech that assumes too great an importance to its statements, especially in front of an audience that is either too small or too casual for it to be appropriate will rob you of all credibility. Humility can be a valuable tool, and genuine consideration of opposing viewpoints can help to give clarity to your point and silence the critics who may be present. To stand rigidly with your chin up and your face stern repeatedly making grand pronouncements is something that should be done only with the greatest of care. For some people, dignity and command are fundamental aspects of the character they always present, for the rest of us, much better to work well with the tools with which we have been provided.



   I hope that you have found some valuable information in this little list and are able to put it to good use when making presentations in the future. Defining and refining your own style and technique in public speaking is an involved endeavour but with continued observations and efforts it can definitely be done … best of luck!    



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