Obama, Teleprompters and Authenticity

President Obama is no longer the premier communicator - which is remarkable as he was elected largely because of his speaking ability. I even named him as #1 in my Top Ten Communicators of 2006. It's not about the words - he does have very good speech writers - it's about the authenticity.

He has slipped for several reasons.

First of all he is over exposed - speaking somewhere almost daily:

  • 9 health care speeches in 9 days
  • 4 Press Conferences in his first 6 months, more than President Bush did in 8 years
  • more interviews than any recent President in recent times

In this over exposure in the media it is also now apparent that he is too scripted and aloof in formal situations, and halting in the informal situations. Not the great communicator.

See it now

Let me show you what I mean. First, there's the teleprompter. It astonishes me that most people don't consciously know when a person is reading from the teleprompter - but I think they DO know it unconsciously. And authenticity suffers. When someone is using the teleprompter, someone is READING A SPEECH - not coming from the heart (or at least appearing to do so.) I do not understand why Obama does not have good teleprompter coaching so that he properly uses focal points to at least APPEAR to be talking to an audience.

Teleprompter 1

Here is Obama in his teleprompter mode at his Egypt speech. He appears to be observing a ping-pong game - 4 seconds to one side (left teleprompter paddle) and 4 seconds to the other side (right teleprompter paddle.) Throughout the campaign and up until last week he had this rigid habit - 4 seconds left, 4 seconds right - and here recently in a Health Care speech.

Teleprompter 2

It's very interesting that last week, in his press conference on health care (that turned into his ObamaGates speech that spawned the Beer Summit), he used the teleprompter (finally) like a newscaster - looking straight at the camera as he reads his speech on a transparent mirror. You'll see he's better - but still cadenced, stiff and academic.

Teleprompter 3

Now here's a funny but revealing take from the TODAY Show on Obama's reliance on the teleprompter. It's written and talked about, and has become so apparent that there is actually a teleprompter on Twitter that is very funny reading: @BOTeleprompter. (As BO says, no POTUS without TOTUS.) So Obama's use of the teleprompter is unprecedented. No President, nor perhaps any public figure in history, has relied on continuous scripting of what he says as has this President.

Extemporaneously speaking...

The sad fact is President Obama got elected because he was a supposed 'great speaker.' Actually he was, and is, a great orator - but I think the teleprompter is now getting in his way. He has to go to another level. Martin Luther King, JFK, Roosevelt, Clinton and Reagan rarely read from teleprompters - except on formal and State occasions. And their greatest moments were not when they were reading - it was when they were speaking. From the heart. Authentically.

Every leader has to be able to speak well extemporaneously - they are always in the limelight and have to communicate well in all situations. You can't take your speech writers and teleprompters everywhere. Sometimes President Obama is OK in extemporaneous mode, but more often he is halting and pedantic - his speech laced with ums and ahs, as in this press conference with Prime Minister Brown, and here in an informal press response that I posted on earlier.

Why it's important

President Obama is our President. No matter what your political bent you want the country to succeed. It is leadership that makes that happen. And we have a President who is now over exposed and, purely from a communications standpoint, going in the wrong direction .

Reading speeches is not leading - where inspiring is critical. I posted about President Bush losing the Bully Pulpit a while back, and most would agree on that. I don't think most will agree with me that President Obama is about to lose the Bully Pulpit as well, but it's happening.

And that would be a tragedy for a country that is already on a slippery slope.

13 thoughts on “Obama, Teleprompters and Authenticity
  1. He’s the leader of our country, not a stand up comedian or musical performer! I should hope that he cares more about the intentionality of his words. Bushisms, anyone? https://is.gd/1Swf3
    Conversely, if he was loose and ‘authentic’ and spoke without teleprompters, and made errors a la Bush, we’d be all over him then, too! I prefer a public that thinks you’re scripted over one that thinks you’re dumb. Politics aside, the last time I checked, people read lines to ‘get it right’ – to convey the message with success and without error. Is that really all THAT bad? By the way, Is this any different than conducting town hall meetings in front of attendants that had been screened and scoured for viewpoints prior to the event? Really? The Obama Teleprompter Police has some nerve…
    Since when are intentionality and transparency all that bad? To compare the number of Obama’s press conferences to that of Bush? Really? As if Bush was the standard? Was Bush not criticized for the lack of transparency?
    He’s the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES! Not exactly the easiest place to hide. I think over exposed comes with the job. Overexposure is something Paris Hilton needs to worry about. Not the POTUS. It’s detrimental to her career, not his.

  2. Leadership really is about the heart influencing people. Authenticity. Who is the leader really? Time revelas it. This communication style will not serve him well over time. We are already beginning to see the effects of it.

  3. His “soaring rhetoric” has never worked on me. As I blogged in “Hot air has never been our thing” — https://sisu.typepad.com/sisu/2009/01/if-president-obama-can-launch-a-white-house-youtube-site-why-cant-the-pope-asks-christian-science-monitor-reporter-ji.html — a couple of months back:
    “From the moment he called us a racist back in December of 2006 in the disingenuously presented afterglow of Oprah’s endorsement, we’ve been constitutionally — both physically and philosophically — unable to listen to the ‘soaring rhetoric’ of the former President Elect. Hot air has never been our thing.”

  4. I’d rather have a well-spoken and knowledgeable president, even if it meant planning his words very carefully. I knew a preacher once who always wrote out what he would say from the pulpit because of the gravity of the situation and the importance of his specific choice of words. How much more so for the leader of the free world? And, I don’t have any scientific study to back this up, but in my casual experience, it seems like other presidents have relied on teleprompters just as much.

  5. Excellent post! The President’s reliance on a teleprompter is painfully obvious, especially when his speech ends – even the ones that have understandable points. Combined with the White House policy for reporters to submit questions prior to any press briefing, the President’s call for openness and transparency falls on deaf ears. Like David Letterman, people know when you’re being authentic; hence the do-overs.

  6. Simply excellent analysis, Bert. President Obama is very bright, certain to learn from his errors. However, a bell once rung, cannot be unrung, and that is the case with his recent press conference response concerning his opinion of the arrest of Professor Gates. He showed a clear bias against the police and that he was capable of being judgmental without having factual data. This photo: https://bit.ly/w9beV taken immediately after the so-called “beer summit” also speaks loudly of a Presidential arrogance, who led the way down the steps while his friend, Professor Gates, who was walking with a cane, was clearly being helped by Officer Crowley. Like I said, he will learn from his mistakes, but the presidency cannot be very effective if it is widely perceived as a communications training ground.

  7. I agree with you. presentation, public speaking and speeches should be, first and foremost, inspiring. when you aim to inspire, people should feel sincerity in there while using a teleprompter–and making it too obvious–defeats that purpose altogether. I’ve seen powerful public speakers who use simple outlines in cards just to remind them what to say next. great post! 🙂

  8. Hi Bert,
    While I agree with you that President Obama is lacking in his extemporaneous speaking skills, I don’t agree that reading a speech means you aren’t speaking from the heart.
    If I think about my speech beforehand and write it down, it just means the thoughts from my heart have been transferred to paper (or a teleprompter). Writing them down means I can express them more clearly than if I didn’t. It also means I won’t forget to say anything important. That can happen when you are using your heart and not your head.
    I realize Obama uses speechwriters, but he works with them on creating his speeches. He’s not just reading the words of someone else.
    No, King and JFK’s greatest moments didn’t come from reading teleprompters, but they did come while reading their speeches. “I have a dream” and “ask not” were King’s and JFK’s greatest moments … both read their speeches. Both were inspirational and both speeches were written by someone else. Those facts are easily proven.
    Ironically, before reading this post, I wrote a post on my blog about why you should read a speech. You can read it at https://www.wellwrittenwellsaid.com/successfulspeechesblog/?p=335
    Have we seen too much of Obama lately? Could be. But if his health care plan is going to be passed, I don’t think communicating less is going to help him accomplish his goal.
    John Watkis

  9. I’ve been away, so haven’t responded to the comments. And just reading them I wanted to respond to each one – either thanking (agreement!) or justifying (disagreements).
    But then I just reread the blog, and it’s all there and in the links. Time will tell in within a year about Obama’s longevity as a skillful communicator.

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