Obama Needs A Communications Coach, not a Speech Coach

OK, OK, Obama is a great communicator!?!

At least that’s the general consensus. And I had him as #1 on our Top Ten Communicators of 2008!

So why do I say he needs a communications coach? He doesn’t need a new speech writer – actually he has one of the best and that is where his strength is – his words and oratorical skills. But oratory is not all there is to communicating, particularly in these desperate times where trust is so important in our leaders. And this is where he needs a communications coach. He didn’t ask, but here’s some free advice:

  • Less professorial, more leader - President Obama looks, acts and sounds like a leader in most of his formal speeches (except for his use of the Teleprompter, and see below.) But in his informal communication settings he reverts to his professorial background – measured slow phrases and long answers. Practice in improv and spontaneity skills would be great (not that I expect a U.S. President is going to do that.) But increasing thinking-on-your-feet mental agility would help.
  • Get skilled with the teleprompter – Obama’s preference is to always speak from a prepared text, written for him in most cases, so he is reading someone’s words. And almost always by Teleprompter – it’s a part of his traveling package. And he looks like he is watching a slow moving ping-pong game whenever he speaks in a formal setting. He looks to the left for 4 seconds, then to the right for 4 seconds, and so on. (More examples here.) Watch him Tuesday night. No variation – which shocks me. It also shocks me that not that many people notice when I mention it. But they will – it becomes monotonous and distracting, and over time the unconscious will become the conscious in the public’s experience of Obama’s speech reading. (Unless he reads this and gets some training – teleprompter use can be seamless.)
  • Less ums, more eyes - In interview settings particularly, and other informal communication situations he has a lot of non-words (ums and ahs) and his eyes cast down more often than not. These are not the hallmark behaviors of a leader. Pausing and looking directly, always, will correct these confidence leaking distractions.

Watch him Tuesday night – he does not yet approach Reagan or Clinton, yet with a little coaching…

9 comments on “Obama Needs A Communications Coach, not a Speech Coach

  1. Good observations. IMHO, the President’s reliance on teleprompters makes him less reliant and authentic – the opposite of a true statesman and memorable orator. I suggest he move away from his campaigning tone and develop more of a leadership approach. On the upside, his recent presentation with Former First Lady Nancy Reagan was spot on.

  2. Bert,I always enjoy your insights on presentation skills. As for the use of the teleprompter, that’s a skill in and of itself. There is something refreshingly different from the last eight years about a president who actually takes the time to think about his answers.I will happily take a couple of ums…along with an intelligent answer.

  3. One of the big falsehoods about Obama is his ability to connect with an audience. He does a poor job and have heard better speakers. Clinton did a good job, but lacked substance. Reagan had an incredible way to go over the media and connect with the listener.

  4. I think he is a natural at giving a political talk, but like many who spend their life with a natural talent for speaking…. they coast on the history of everyone telling them how good they are. They stop trying to improve. The believe their own press.
    In the book, OUTLIERS, Malcolm Gladwell points out that natural talent will take you far… but those who are really GREAT thousands of hours of practice.
    I feel he just uses his “good” talent as a speaker and has never worked at making that talent “GREATNESS”

  5. Good points all around. One thing that we all probably need to take into account is that every word out of the U.S. President’s mouth can move markets, start wars, and cause events to occur.
    I would suspect that at the start of such a truly high-pressure job, Obama is probably just trying very hard to not make any mistakes.
    It’s my guess that he’ll loosen up over time.
    - Dr. Jim Anderson
    http://www.TheAccidentalCommunicator.com
    “Learn How To Calm Your Fears, Wow Your Audience, And Get Your Point Across”

  6. Great post. I agree with your Teleprompter point; it does seem a bit distracting. Reagan and Clinton are both impressive and I believe Obama will reach their level, he is early into his Presidency.

  7. Bert,
    Excellent point, and I didn’t mean to detract from the intent of your post. Experience often distinguishes managers from leaders.
    His speech writer does have skill, but I wonder, having meet and spoken with several White House speech writers who were also communicators, are his speech writers also communicators? While the substance might come from the men, the skilled speech writer also works as a communicator at that level, asking how will this substance impact those audiences.
    Appreciate the compliment. I enjoy yours as well.
    Best,
    Rich

  8. I think his speech writer is skilled, and think (and hope) that Obama directs the content – the substance. For you’re talking about substance here, very articulately. (I like your blog.) But this blog is about the experience of the man – very important in establishing trust, no matter what the content.
    Thanks,
    Bert

  9. Seriously, I think he needs a new speech writer too.
    On the world stage, his messages are only reinforcing a national weakness. With the exception of Carter, most Presidents shift their campaign messages in order to demonstrate the strength of the nation (even in crisis) and a resolve to unite and improve.
    None of this is happening. Russians are warning us away from socialism for goodness sake! It doesn’t get any worse than that.
    Best,
    Rich