What can our own politicians learn from the soaring public speaking skills of the new President of the United States of America? Marina Hyde (A bad week for the cause of banality and witless snidery, Guardian, Saturday 8 November) talks of politicians both past and present listening to Obama’s victory speech in Chicago in the early hours of Wednesday morning experiencing a ‘sobering, gut – sinking sense of their own inadequacy.’ How right she is.
Public speaking skills honed to perfection
In the opening gambit of his victory speech, Obama demonstrates a skill which has not only been honed and developed since the roaring oration at the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in November 2007, cited by Michael Tomasky as the most engaging speech of the campaign (The best of times, the worst of times, Guardian 8 November), but one that is also quite obviously natural and instinctive to him. It is a mixture of the stirring preaching of the pulpit and the inspirational poetry of the political heavyweight.
His use of Pace, Pitch and Pause is a masterclass
Technically, Obama is more than adept at his craft. His employment of the three ‘p’s – pace, pitch and pause – is a master class in itself. His opening sentence in Chicago contained 45 words and it took him, from the moment he started speaking to the beginning of his next point, 30 seconds to deliver. This equates to an average speech rate of 90 words per minute or 1.5 words per second. All great orators appreciate the importance of pause, and within that a variety of pause, and they ignore it at their peril. We want to hear what they say (mostly) and to see the images they paint and we cannot do that at the sort of speeds that some politicians speak at.
Obama’s long vowel sounds helps us connect with what he’s saying
His skill at extending the long vowel sounds in words such as ‘schools,’ ‘seen’ and ‘first’ not only draws those words out so that we can connect with them but also gives us the benefit of enjoying his rich, balanced and mellifluous resonance. And as for his diphthongs (words with two vowel sounds such as ‘time,’ ‘old’ and ‘poor’) he positively sings them bringing music into his voice.
His vocal energy is magnetic
Leaving aside the rhetorical skill of the text itself, he speaks each thought with a vocal energy that brings his audience to the crest of a wave and keeps them there until he, and only he, decides to bring it crashing to its climax. Lists, which lesser speakers clumsily reel off like the football scores, become great cadenzas which carry us with them on a tide of enthusiasm. His understanding of the power of repetition and how to add optimum vocal function to that celebrated phrase ‘yes we can’ is so simple it is seemingly obvious – repeating the same tune – but demands such confidence and excellence that few could achieve it so convincingly.
His vocal variety is inspirational
He adjusts his pace to suit the mood of his crowd, gathering speed and slowing down with effortless ease and he pitches his voice perfectly applying the range of notes that some of our most distinguished actors draw on in the great Shakespearean soliloquies.
Maya Angelou wrote: “words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning,” and President – Elect Obama has that capacity in bucket loads. It is invigorating to be reminded of what an inspirational politician actually sounds like and our own leaders and would be leaders could do worse than to tear a leaf from Barack’s book.
Poetic legacy of the new president
Those lucky enough to have been at Grant Park in the early hours of that Wednesday morning for his victory speech witnessed the culmination of a long and fascinating campaign with an oration that will surely join the ranks of some of world’s greatest political speeches. They, and those listening around the world, could not help but be engaged and, to quote Homer: “he ceased, but left so charming on their ear his voice, that listening they still seemed to hear.”
Let’s hope his politics match his rhetorical ability.
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