While the world reacts to the 2016 US election outcome and debates the relative flaws of both party leaders, most people would agree one thing about President Obama – when he talks, people listen.

Here we shine a spotlight on the elements of an Obama speech and see what we can learn to improve our own group presentations and pitches.

He builds a powerful connection with his audience.

When people talk about feeling a ‘connection’ with a speaker it’s usually hard for them to define why. More often than not they are referring to an emotional connection or influence rather than an intellectual one. This is especially true with Obama. Whether he is pitching buoyantly or tackling a more sensitive or even tragic issue, many people comment on his ability to make people feel like they are the only person in the room.

Emotional connections are important. We’ve long know that our ability to retrieve memories is dependent on our mood and emotions at the time of the original experience. Carl W. Buehner captures this eloquently:

“They may forget what you said — but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

People remember how Obama made them feel.

So – we can think about how we make people feel emotionally when we pitch or present to them. We can even think about the emotions we want to elicit and work backwards from there in devising our speech strategy.

He turns up and turns down the emotion.

Within 30 seconds or so of hearing Obama talk, you usually know where he stands on something. He makes his feelings known and as already stated, he uses this to fuel the engagement. With tears and fist pumps in equal measure, even if people don’t quite see the intellectual merits of Obama’s arguments, they can still find him irresistible as a person.

But – he’s cool too. He’s able to turn the emotion on and off. When the displays of passion won’t cut it or emotions aren’t necessary Obama can get down to business and make compelling arguments in a calm way. In this way he can quickly focus on his main points and assertively remind people why they’re there.

So – we can think about how we mix emotions and control effectively, turning them up or down to keep people engaged and interested, yet focused and in tune with our ideas or messages.

He wrote the presentation textbook.

He varies tone and pitch to emphasise important points, injects energy and presents to a melody that makes his appearances both enjoyable and serious at the same time. Obama does it all, and with confidence.

Obama also keeps it simple. Obviously he is clear, succinct and he tailors his communication to his audience, but rarely are Obama’s speeches complex or longwinded.

Keeping it simple helps make sure the majority of people can access his arguments and he can get his ideas across quickly, with impact.

So – being honest with ourselves, are we tuned in to the basics of good presenting? Whether building from scratch or honing the perfect speech, there are always ways to improve.

He mixes humour and injects personality.

Humour and personality are particularly important elements to aid communication. Of course, getting people on board takes more than being fun and interesting, but humour can help break ice and provide nice links between key points. For Obama, this video probably summarises his approach to using humour.

When talking to a group it’s important to show our personalities so people can get to know us. While most of us at some point have been guilty of hiding somewhat behind our slides, most audiences want to get under the skin of a presenter, to understand what they care about. Obama allows people in. People feel like they’re really getting to know him, what he thinks and what his values are – even if we don’t.

Another great example of using humour to fire up an audience when the subject matter is perhaps less ‘sexy’ can be found in Box CEO Aaron Levie’s lecture on building [technology] for the enterprise.

So – we can take steps to mix humour into our presentations. We can make sure we get some of our personality, values, interests and opinions across to the audience and let them get to know us.

He gets physical and animated.

Obama’s facial expressions and body language has given media outlets globally a great source of material for years. Not afraid to give a discerning scowl or smirk, Obama also make sure he smiles – a lot – even when tackling really serious issues. He mixes all sorts of emotional expressions to great effect.

His variation in expression helps transmit enthusiasm and positivity, but also a sense that he is somewhat unpredictable, which keeps his audience on their toes and engaged. He also exaggerates his expressions for effect. He’ll throw his head back as he shouts, even though he doesn’t need to. He’ll make a statement and in a provocative manner, he’ll grimace purposefully and confidently in anticipation of the crowds roaring endorsement.

Blending humour, animation, emotions, personal reflections or anecdotes, Obama takes his audience on a journey in his speeches.

So – surely we can think about how we incorporate these techniques into our overall approach? We can explore which of the above we do, and do well, as well as those bits that are currently weak or in need of attention in our style.

The stuff we don’t see – Planning and Feedback.

Of course, Obama doesn’t write all his speeches – that would be a full-time job in itself.

While Obama is among the best orators of our time, he benefits from having a diverse team who can either review or even produce entire sections of his presentations, making sure all of the necessary elements are covered. When it comes to generating great content for speeches, it pays for Obama to get others to review and give feedback and test out how the message lands with others. Even if he didn’t ask, you can be sure there would be plenty telling him what they think.

So – the question is, in the absence of the West Wing reviewers, do we still have our own mechanisms for sharing and getting feedback on our presentations, pitches or speeches before we go live with them? We really should.

How can we take bits from Obama’s style?

Observing Obama’s style and comparing to our own style is a useful way of identifying potential development areas. Obama is at the top of his game, but for most of us everyday provides a new opportunity to positively impact on people and tell them what we’re about. Though our world may be very different to Obama’s, the basic principles for great speaking still apply. So why not think about these as you prepare for your next key presentation or pitch?


Enjoy this? Why not explore our walk through of a great presentation – before, during and post.

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