What Obama’s Charleston eulogy can teach you about presentation styles

It’s hard living in Washington DC without becoming a bit of a political junkie. OK, a stark-raving mad, all-consuming political junkie.

I love news, I love politics, and thanks to today’s 24-hour media cycle there is always something to watch and critique. I watch all the usual suspects­ – CNN, MSNBC, FOX. And as you’d expect (given what we do at Oratium), I pay especially close attention to press conferences and speeches.

Quite apart from politics, we often critique President Obama for his deliberate speaking style.

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Deliberate. Speaking. Style.

He is a man that’s gone gray, and when he speaks you know why. He knows full well that everything he says will be endlessly scrutinized…so he parses his words very carefully. Words matter.

However, if you’ve ever heard the President do sports radio or late night TV or – my favorite – the Washington Correspondents’ Dinner – he’s a totally different guy. To quote what was often said about George W. Bush, “that’s a guy I could have a beer with.”

He’s loose, entertaining, quick-witted, and he has great comedic timing. He’s fun to watch, plain and simple. But during work hours? Zzzzzz. Watching a formal speech by President Obama (like this one) is like being slowly hit in the face by a 2×4 again and again and… again. The contrast between his two speaking styles (casual vs. formal) is staggering. Surely we all have a range of speaking styles, but come on!

So it came as a huge surprise to me to watch the eulogy that President Obama gave for the Charleston, S.C. shooting victims and their pastor. I had heard about it on the news, but I had been working that day and so I only saw snippets on the news. And every network played the snippet of the President singing the hymn Amazing Grace, and of course after whatever other clips were included, along with other clips that fit each network’s chosen corner or spot on the political spectrum. But overall, it was the singing that people liked – and in general, most agreed he handled the moment well. Not a bad singing voice either.

I wanted to see the full eulogy. So the next day I sat down and watched all of it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RK7tYOVd0Hs

Wow. I always use our Oratium speaking evaluation form when I review speeches, and I literally put the form down after about 45 seconds. It was breathtaking. And yes, I teared up.

Obviously for people who don’t agree with the President, there was (there always is) material they disliked. But what stood out was his delivery – how natural and emotional it was, and how he powerfully landed a big idea: grace is a gift given.

When you watch the full speech, it’s crystal clear he didn’t just stumble into song. Once he was through with the more politically oriented portions of his eulogy, he started on the topic of grace. And slowly you could feel both the President and the crowd building in momentum together. At one point the organist actually played music to the words as he spoke. I’ve never seen or heard anything like it – and no way that was rehearsed (though we are pretty strict that everything should be well rehearsed!).

For all the parsing and coverage that the eulogy received, no matter the network, they all grasped the big idea: grace is a gift. Words matter.

But words are more memorable when sung – brain science teaches us this. And so he sang. And what could be more memorable than the President of the United States singing Amazing Grace – alone at first, and then joined by the thousands present. There with hardly a dry eye.

It was a speech designed and delivered for that audience to remember – and it will be. Now, anytime I hear or sing that hymn again, I will remember that grace is a gift. A powerful idea landed.

His remarks a few days later on the news were sadly back to business as usual. The mainstream media was up their old tricks as well.

But the next time you get up to deliver remarks, think about the contrast between President Obama’s 2 speaking styles, and err on the side of being more like your natural self. If you need help, remember the moment that the president taught us about how amazing grace is.

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Understanding speaking styles, and how to make yours even stronger, is a feature of our Executive Communications Skills workshop. Contact us to find out more.


Written by

JD