Be Like Barack: How You Can Steal from Obama's Speaking Secrets and Apply His Magic

By Jon Kraushar Communications Consultant

President Barack Obama's inaugural address, while falling far short of the soaring rhetoric and delivery of some of his other speeches, nonetheless was marked with a magical power: the power of conviction, determination, faith and belief in rejuvenation. By closely deconstructing President Obama's inaugural address we can uncover the techniques he used to work his magic. Then you can borrow his tricks the next time you give a speech.

[caption id="attachment_5952" align="aligncenter" width="212" caption="President Barack Obama delivers his inaugural address (AP)"][/caption]

In every speech (just as in every magic act) you have to show what you are telling. The way Obama did that today was to use the six parts of a composite message that any of us send when we communicate. Those parts are our words, face, eyes, body, voice, and attitude.


Every speech tells a story and every story needs a title (or in media terms a "headline") to show and tell its principle point. The story and headline of every inaugural address are some variation on a president saying, "I urge you to believe..." and the subject is a call to commitment and action or a warning about a challenge or crisis.

The headline for Obama's inaugural address will be debated. For me, it is "A New Era of Responsibility." This headline declares the first of three themes that define Obama's speech: responsibility, accountability and possibility.

What is indisputable to me, however, is that this speech was distinguished by the emotionObama put behind his words. He infused them with a tone of voice and facial expressions that showed assertiveness--particularly regarding war and defense. He looked and sounded tougher, as if to warn: "Don't underestimate America and don't mess with me."

Spicing Up The Words

Obama and his speechwriters used many rhetorical devices to try to make his messages memorable. Three of their writing techniques stand out: contrast, repetition, and "word pictures" (imagery).

Here is a contrast about possibility: "On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord."

Here is repetition regarding accountability: "...the world has changed, and we must change with it."

Here is a "word picture" (imagery) about responsibility: "With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come." Parenthetically, I found this to be more trite than normal for the eloquent Obama, but there it is.

Seven Percent of the Magic

After surveying many different audiences, Professor Albert Mehrabian of UCLA discovered that only 7% of what an audience likes in a speaker depends on all the words he or she uses. Shocked? It makes sense when you consider that audiences recall relatively few words or sentences verbatim. After all, Obama spoke 2,380 words in his inaugural address. How many of them could even the most attentive listener remember exactly?

Instead, audiences remember a few general ideas and themes, but mainly go on feelings. Most commonly the feelings about the speaker are "I liked him..." (or didn't), "I agreed with her..." (or didn't), "That was informative, inspirational, persuasive or entertaining..." (or wasn't).

While we like to think we are very rational in forming opinions we are actually very emotional. We put together selective facts or bits of information and we focus on certain words that confirm our emotionsabout a subject or a person.

This doesn't mean that your words are unimportant. It means that to capture hearts and minds your words, face, eyes, body, voice and attitude must fit together emotionally and connect with the audience as you do three things: show, telland sell.

Which of Obama's words about "hot button" issues sent a jolt of (positive or negative) emotional electricity through you?

To borrow Obama's techniques, start with words. Decide on the theme(s) for your speech. Create a "headline." Organize your thoughts into an outline or bullet points. Then write a few sound bites, using contrast, repetition and word pictures. Show, tell and sell.

The Next Fifty-five Percent of the Magic

Research by Professor Mehrabian also finds that 55% of the impact a speaker makes on an audience is traceable back to non-verbal communication. Therefore, more than half of our impression of President Obama's inaugural address is based on what we read in his face, eyes and body.

It's said that 80% of the information we process comes through our visual sense. Even before we had language we used our eyes to interpret the world.

Jurors study the body language of witnesses for clues to true motivations and character. Gamblers look for telltale signs in the face, eyes and body of another player, to gauge what cards they have and how they'll play them. Gamblers describe as a "tell" unconscious body language that "telegraphs" vital information about another person. Watching Obama's inaugural address, we are like jurors and gamblers.

Throughout his speech, Obama's non-verbal "tells" telegraphed his seriousness, his determination and his fundamental faith and optimism. We saw this in his furrowed brow, his dignified demeanor and the way he occasionally cut the air with hand gestures of emphasis. All this brought physical interpretationto the information of his actual words.

What silent messages did you glean from Obama's face, eyes and body? Were you influenced to buy (or reject) what he was selling?

Show What You're Telling

You need just the right amount of animation to show your engagement and energy. It is more interesting for the audience to watch a lively speaker. When you gesture emphatically it pulls stronger sounds out of you.

To see the effect of more (or less) body language, rehearse your speeches in front of a mirror or record them with a video camera and watch the playback. Have someone you trust watch you rehearse. You'll benefit from a second opinion.

In my communication training, I often watch a DVD or tape of a person with the sound off to see if there is anything going on non-verbally that helps the interpretation and makes me want to turn up the sound to watch and hear more.

Try that with Obama. Watch a replay of his inaugural address on the Internet with the sound off, then on. What are your observations? Tape yourself rehearsing or giving a speech and play it back with the sound on, then off. Most people are a little stiff giving a speech and could gesture more.

The Final Thirty Eight Percent of the Magic

Professor Mehrabian's research found that 38% of the impact any speaker (like President Obama) makes on an audience derives from his or her voice: tone, pitch, volume, resonance, pauses (use of silence) and rate of speaking, as well as vocal interjections--including "junk" utterances like "uh, um, er, y'know, like, okay," etc.

President Obama has a good voice for a leader. It is deep, steady and soothing. His voice sounds best when he is reading from a teleprompter, as he did in his inaugural address, because it eliminates his habit of saying "uh" and of sometimes sounding tentative.

Obama has practiced how to use his voice to show his "cool, calm and collectedness" and also his passion.

Here are vocal techniques Obama used to evoke specific emotions:

Pause (for drama): "...we understand that greatness is never a given. [PAUSE] It must be earned."

Emphasis (see underlines): "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin againthe work of remaking America."

Tone Shift (from somber to optimistic): "...the challenges we face are real...But know this, America--they willbe met."

Change in rate (from slow and deliberate to slightly faster): "...those values upon which our success depends--hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism--these things are old. These things are true."

Volume variation (more volume on the final, italicized phrase): "...know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more."

Rising pitch: "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."

Not everyone has a great voice. But everyone can work, like Obama does, on the use of pausing, emphasis, tone, rate, volume, and pitch so that the audience understands not just what is said, literally but what is meant, emotionally.


When I train CEOs, political leaders and TV news people, I advise them that audiences seek in them the behavior and attitude of someone who is comfortably in charge and showsin different ways that they care about the audience as people and what the audience collectively cares about. Those traits are a blend of authority and warmth. To be excellent communicators, presidents need to convey just the right combination of authority and warmth so that people identify with them even while considering them to be on a somewhat higher plane.

In Obama's speech, he delivered several statements with authority. This was particularly dramatic when he issued this warning: "...for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."

At other times, Obama displayed his warmth. His voice got softer when he said, "...we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains."

To sum up all the composite parts we've discussed, consider that four of your "V's" must fit together in a likable, persuasive way: verbal, visual, vocal and values.

My overall reaction to Obama's speech is that it felta little slow at the start but it built and gained momentum, finishing strongly. Although it was the first formal use of Obama's "bully pulpit," the speech felt to me more like a stern sermon from a church pulpit (Obama is strongly influenced by religious preaching). It was a call for national rectitude, responsibility and buckling down. Obama said, "...everywhere we look, there is work to be done," and "...the time has come to set aside childish things."

If much of it sounded prosaic rather than poetic I wonder if our new president intended that, as if to signal that our times call for plain, sober speaking rather than fancy flights of oratory.

I think the speech will join almost all other presidential inaugural addresses in that it lacked any one immortal phrase that gets carved in memories and monuments. Its chief significance was the significance of Barack Obama delivering it, as our country's first African-American president.

If the speech disappointed some for not being as eloquent or stirring as others Obama has given, that is more a testimony to the high expectations of him as an orator than it is an indictment of this particular speech. Obama has the daunting challenge in every speech to top his previous peak performances, and this inaugural address, while workmanlike, didn't come close.

The Magician is Really a Craftsman

President Obama isn't really a magician; he is a craftsman who works hard at his trade of being a good (some would say great) communicator. Of course, it is possible to be a good communicator even if your ideas are bad. We'll have to wait to see if Obama's vision in his inaugural address translates into good solutions for our country.

If you agree that the "magic" in communicating involves show, telland sell, how did Obama score with you on those three measures?

Putting Obama's words, face, eyes, body, voice, and attitude together into a "composite message," how do you score him according to what I call "the bottom line of communication": How does this person make me feel?

Use whatever you like from Obama's techniques, customize them to fit your personality and you will perform "magic" when you speak.

Communications consultant Jon Kraushar is at