Posts Tagged ‘active language’

Communication lessons from Obama

Posted in Communicate / Collaborate on May 28th, 2009 by Leanne Fry – Be the first to comment

By now you will probably have read or watched Obama’s speech, if indeed you didn’t stay up and watch it. Obama is a talented orator, and with good copy his speeches are moving, inspirational, interesting and uplifting.

So how good was his inauguration speech? That’s up to you to decide. There has been some discussion that, given the almost impossible level of expectation that was beginning to build around him, he pulled back, toned it down.

But for all that, there were a number of things he did extraordinarily well. And these things are relevant to us – from any CEO talking to their people, to any one of us presenting at a conference or to a client.

Let’s start with the person. Obama speaks well. He speaks carefully, it is well paced and his voice is well-modulated (easy to listen to). He has a measured gaze and holds eye contact.When you consider how verbal communication is core to any job we do, acquiring and honing these techniques is valuable.

Then it’s worth looking at the mechanics of the language he uses. He uses active language rather than passive (see for a good description). Passive language is usually impersonal – it is remote from the speaker, often does not tie an action to anyone in particular, and rarely discusses just how things will be implemented. When you read Obama’s speech, there are many active terms: we can, we will, we come, we reject. You’ll be surprised how passive language can creep into a proposal, RFP response, email or a presentation.

Obama also uses simple language. By doing this he has the greatest chance of connecting with the greatest number of people. Once you introduce jargon into any presentation or discussion you run the risk of losing someone in the audience. The words he uses the most in the entire speech are ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘our’. Very inclusive.

He uses some powerful imagery. He says to those who are corrupt ‘… we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.’ Personal, dramatic and easily visualised. And straight – no ambiguity there.

If we turn to the content of his speech, there is also good discipline at work:

  1. Know the purpose: sounds really obvious, doesn’t it? But Obama’s speech is not a one-off, it comes after the campaign and sets the stage for his term. It’s part of an ongoing relationship. So he delivered what the people wanted to hear. He spoke as president, not candidate. He set expectations.
  2. Show yourself: of course this depends on the circumstances, but Obama mentioned his father twice. That reinforced a sense of history, and also Obama’s personal relationships. Leadership and your ability to influence is intrinsically tied up with who you are as a person.
  3. Themes: be very clear about what you want to cover and structure your speech or presentation accordingly. Obama starts with the challenges, draws on history to show why success is possible, shows people what they personally need to step up to, and describes what success looks like. Simple and amazingly successful.

We all know a lot of work goes into any speech, presentation or proposal, and the law of diminishing returns can easily apply. Too many cooks can turn the best efforts into mush. But some thought about the basics will pay you dividends.