June 6, 2008
Obama's Oratory and McCain's ProblemBy Lee Cary
The June 3 general election kickoff speeches by McCain and Obama displayed a contrast in oratorical styles unparalleled in recent U.S. political history.
Obama's speech was rich in delivery and light in content. McCain's speech was richer in content and weak in delivery.
The oratory deficit represents a major challenge to the McCain campaign for the duration. Delivery often trumps content. The greatest speakers combine both skills. But they are rare. In the short attention span/multitasking environment today, a silver tongue and charisma trump substance.
Obama's speech in St. Paul, wherein he claimed the status of presumptive nominee, displayed the characteristic oratorical style that we've come to expect from him. It's well-suited to a large, enthusiastic audience.
His speeches are written to be heard, not read. His syntax is simple to follow in the moment. The transitions between sections offer no speed bumps in understanding. By these criteria, his June 3 speech was typical of his style and was, for him, unremarkable.
Obama's campaign staff skillfully stages events where Obama's style excels. He has, himself, become the message, and the adoring audience conveys legitimacy to those who watch from a distance on a screen. Speaker and audience work in tandem to yield a positive and powerful impact.
On June 3, Obama said,
That was Obama's recitation of his accomplishments. His verbal resume. Only a gifted orator could captivate and convince an audience of adults with such a thin and vague litany of achievements when the presidency is at stake. It works for him because the crowd is persuaded by his persona. His lack of substantial achievement is, to them, utterly irrelevant.
Obama's speeches don't convey information; they create eloquence. He could read the small print disclaimer on a TV auto ad and his followers would chant," Yes, We Can," because he speaks to their hearts not their heads. He said as much.
They need to be identified with an historical moment, and he fulfills that need. And because he is of utmost importance to the future in their eyes, they, too, have enhanced importance by identifying with him. That is a powerful tonic, particularly for those who feel weak.
In comparison, McCain's speech given near New Orleans was received by a comparatively sedate crowd. The staging was unimpressive. His delivery was, as is typical for him, stilted.
His North Vietnamese captors erased any chance for him to make broad, comfortable gestures, so he looks stiff. While some Americans see sacrifice and courage there, those who don't know his story just see stiffness.
His voice is easily identifiable, but not particularly pleasing to the ear. His incessant blinking and random eyebrow-lifting are distractions. His vocal pacing is redundant and lacks emphasis. He smiles when it doesn't match what he just said. His downturn in tone at the end of some sentences sounds affected and stagy. And he says, "My friends" way too often (which is more than once), although he didn't overuse those words in this June 3 speech.
In short, his speaking skills are not strong, and that's being kind.
But, McCain's content far exceeded Obama's on June 3. Granted, his speech had 3,167 words to Obama's 2,450. But page-for-page, McCain's content was more substantive than Obama's. He made many more points and made most of them clearly.
But as an orator he made too many points. So many that their disconnected multiplicity smothered his core message.
His transitions from point-to-point were often non-existent, creating non sequiturs. Not a positive thing for a guy selling content as his strong point.
In short, his speech lacked focus and flow. His forest was rendered invisible due to the trees. Perhaps his intended core message was packed within these two episodes.
Somewhere in there, there may be a succinct core message. But he never scrubbed it, shined it up, and punched it out. Consequently, his speech had no particularly memorable lines. It meandered down an invisible path. Like a blinded fighter flailing his arms in the air, he landed no hard blows on Obama. And he could have.
Perhaps his speech was written by a committee, because that's how it reads. And that's a shame. Because...
Obama is a young man with old ideas. McCain is an older man with younger ideas. But that message never got out of the McCain Woods.
If he's to become our 44th President, McCain has to do better. Much better.
Obama only has to do more of the same.
During the two decades that Obama was racking up what he calls his "public service," I traveled the world coaching thousands of business executives from hundreds of corporations to be effective speakers. In many cases, their individual promotions were dependent on their ability to convince an audience to act. Sometimes the best speakers get promoted over better thinkers.
It could happen here.