“Letting people see how I think” is how Senator Barack Obama describes his speaking style on the stump. As he travels the country seeking to introduce himself to voters as well as build support for his presidential campaign, Obama is taking a rhetorical approach that differs from candidates in both parties.
Most presidential candidates use their stump speeches to state their views and exhort the faithful. If they are good, they use their speeches as points of inspiration. Obama’s tactic is more grounded and very purposeful. As he told Adam Nagourney of The New York Times, “I use a different style if I’m speaking to a big crowd; I can gin up folks pretty well.” This is the style that he used in 2004 during the Democratic Convention when he introduced himself to the national public as a young politician running for senator. The faithful were enthralled. At the same time, Obama realizes that “when I am in these town hall settings, my job is not to throw them a lot of red meat.” That is, he’s not stumping overtly for votes; he’s giving people a “sense of my thought process.” In doing so, Obama is carving a good niche for himself as a thinking man’s populist, a fresh face but one with a brain as big as his smile.
Vary Your Speaking Style
Those of us not running for office can learn from Obama’s style, and in fact from what politicians from either party do. And that is varying your style to your audience. Skilled leaders know to vary their messages to audiences. For example, if you are speaking to an in-house group, you can be more revealing about what’s going on inside the company than if you are speaking to a group of reporters. Public relations pros school their executives in developing different messages for different groups. But often not enough time is spent on varying speaking style, that is informal versus formal, or declamatory versus reflective. Varying that style is critical. So often audiences do not remember specific words or phrases but they do remember what the speaker looked like and whether he seemed sincere.
Public figures can serve as role models when selecting a speaking style. The mere mention of their names conjures up instant images of who they are and what they sound like. Here are some folks to consider emulating for messages you must deliver.
Think Ronald Reagan when you want inspire. Few could rouse audiences as well as President Reagan. Consider his speech in the wake of the Challenger disaster when he praised the bravery of the astronauts but also made it very clear that space travel would continue because it was important to our national identity. A more stern Reagan lectured the Soviet Union in Berlin by challenging the Soviet premier: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” He was reflecting the hopes and dreams of free people everywhere.
Think Bill Clinton when you want to win someone over. Whether you think of him as Slick Willie or Mr. President, Bill Clinton is a master at connecting. He does not reflect what audiences want to hear; he inhales it and spins it so they feel that he is one with them. At the same time, he was a “policy wonk,” and could revel in the details of governmental minutiae. But when speaking to the nation, he was down-home and plain.
Think Martin Luther King when you want to call to action. A skilled rhetorician, Martin Luther King, Jr. honed his speaking style in two places: in the classroom—he studied rhetoric— and in the pulpit—he was a pastor. His sermons and speeches were grounded in Biblical verse as well as contemporary theology and political thought. He was a great phrase-maker but one who knew how to touch the spirit—even the soul—of an audience and get them to take action. He was not the engine of the civil rights movement, but he was its voice and its conscience.
Think Vince Lombardi when you want to challenge. Coaches need to get under the skin of their players. They need to create an itch that makes the player want to scratch, that is, perform. You can only do this if you really know and understand your players. Vince Lombardi was a great student of the human condition and he knew his players inside and out. And so when he exhorted them to play hard, he was doing it in the context of knowing them as men as well as performers.
Think Abraham Lincoln when you want to be real. While no recordings of Lincoln were ever made, we know from contemporary accounts that he was a masterful speaker. One reason was because his words reflected his humanity. Whether he was telling a funny story (remember, he was a former country lawyer) or engaging the nation in war, his call for the abolition of slavery, the preservation of the Union and, just prior to his death, the healing of a nation torn asunder, Lincoln used messages that reflected on “the better angels of our nature,” a phrase he himself coined.
Gotta Be Me
We can learn from the speaking styles of each of these people. You can pick and choose bits of each person’s style but, bottom line, the person speaking is not a Reagan or a King, it is you. So the final lesson is that you must speak like yourself. Your style emerges from who you are, your personal integrity, or to put another way, your authenticity. The genuine you! That comes from knowing yourself and what you stand for as well as understanding your role in your organization. Speaking on behalf of an organization, be it as CEO or sales person, is a role of representation. What you say reflects on yourself, yes, but it also must capture the vision and values of your organization. You are the company when you are speaking, to your own people, to your customers or to shareholders.
By channeling the speaking styles of others you can get ideas for how you wish to shape or deliver your message, but ultimately people do not want someone else; they want you. The first time you speak you will not know your speaking style. You will no doubt have a fine message but learning how to vary tempo and to pace your delivery comes with practice and live experience. The more often you stand and deliver, the better you will be. A trusted associate, or speech coach, can help you shape your style, but ultimately who you are on stage is a reflection of the public you. That is, it is fine to be quiet and reflective as a private citizen, but when leading your team you must assume a higher profile—visible, readable and accountable. It is a form of acting, yes, but one that is rooted in the nature of leadership and is of the highest order.
John Baldoni is a leadership communications consultant who works with Fortune 500 companies as well as non-profits including the University of Michigan. He is a frequent keynote and workshop speaker as well as the author of six books on leadership; the latest is How Great Leaders Get Great Results (McGraw-Hill). Readers are welcome to visit his leadership resource website at www.johnbaldoni.com.