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Style IS Substance – The Magic of Obama

Most people who know me know I’m fascinated by political communication and in fact, it has become an area of expertise for me. Today, I was quoted in the Washingon Post on Barack Obama’s speaking style and earlier this month I was quoted in the New York Times on Hillary Clinton’s. [See Fast Company feature: The Brand Called Obama.]

Obama is clearly the winner (so far) in the communication wars and it’s difficult and a little sad to watch Clinton and, to a lesser extent, McCain criticize Obama’s speaking style. Their criticism reflects their frustration with this “upstart” who came from nowhere to upend the contest in ways neither of them expected. It’s all empty rhetoric, they say, he’s a great speaker, sure, but there is no substance to back up all the oratory.

This attitude doesn’t surprise me because I hear the same types of complaints every day from my clients, many of whom are great at what they do (must-have skills for the job) and think that’s all that should matter. The work should speak for itself. But work, while important, can’t speak. People can and that’s where style comes in.

Expert speaking style enables a leader — or an ordinary person — to accomplish a critical goal: to get his or her message out. Style gives words meaning and makes the speaker believable. For example, the vast majority of Obama’s supporters don’t know him personally and have no idea how he’d be as president. He could be wonderful or he could be awful. (We don’t know how Clinton or McCain would be either.) Still, because of his oratorical prowess, supporters believe in his ability to do the job (there is hard evidence of his intelligence, as there is for the others). But his speech makes them feel as if they know him. He comes across as trustworthy, funny, comfortable. And, oh, that voice! It’s deep and expressive.

Obama’s speech also has an excellent rhythm, the pauses and cadences that allow his audiences to absorb his meaning and participate with echoes, answers and chants. This often overlooked aspect of motivational speech accomplishes a couple of things: It gives the speaker much needed breaks and by encouraging audience response, enables them to feel joined with the candidate, active participants in his success. A more subtle benefit is that it bespeaks sensitivity and generosity to his supporters; instead of doing all the speaking himself, he allows them to give voice to their own excitement and enthusiasm. He reads the room.

It has been years and years since we’ve been treated to someone with this type of oratorical mastery. If anything, Obama’s eloquence starkly demonstrates just how far we have fallen in settling for poor speaking (in politics and business). We have somehow convinced ourselves that the only thing that matters is the work. It’s the steak, not the sizzle, just the facts, Jack, style should never trump substance, and everything else is fluff. This is not and never has been true. People may not know how Barack Obama would do as president, but his ability to inspire forces us to consider the possibility.

Obama may be a “new” kind of candidate, but in fact, he epitomizes an old paradigm. Style does not trump substance; style is substance. We feel it, we thirst for it and we drink it up.

A big part of a leader’s job is to motivate, inspire and persuade. We are all in the business of persuasion and thus, this presidential election season is an excellent time to observe and to learn about the amazing and transformational power of speech. No longer can it relegated to the category of “soft” skills. The fact is that if a person can speak very, very well, anything is possible.

Copyright 2008 Ruth Sherman.  All Rights Reserved.

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