I just watched a 25-minute video of Barack Obama delivering a stunning speech to a massive crowd in Berlin. Watching this guy give a speech is like watching an Olympic diver enter the pool facefirst without a splash.
In general, I like Obama’s platform and philosophy- but beyond his politics or even content, I can’t help going meta on his incredible skill as a speaker. The actor in me would like to point out that he speaks powerfully and assuredly for almost a solid half-hour,
completely off-book [correction: barely seeming to read off teleprompter], without a single sip of water and barely a slip of the tongue. His gaze is steady, direct and yet nonconfrontational. And without sounding theatrical or contrived, he subtly varies his tone and rhythm- hear how his voice booms when he says “this is the moment”? And how it softens, drawing you in, when he talks about his father?
Most professional performers can’t pull off this level of finesse- witness the terror in the eyes of all those pasty-mouthed actors awkwardly trying to present Academy Awards; those are career entertainers struggling to read 40-second pitches from teleprompters. Obama’s a lawyer, not an actor. He’s not looking down at his script, I don’t see an earpiece, and his cadence is too natural for someone to be feeding him lines, this is no GWB State-of-the-Union. He stands there, looking 200,000 people in the eye and speaking as beautifully as anyone I’ve ever heard. I would love to know how he prepares. This is wildly impressive.
It sure helps that the speech is well-written, smoothly jumping between the micro and macro spheres (from personal anecdotes about his father’s decision to seek a US education, to a venue-specific section about the fall of Communism in Germany, and out to huge global stuff like climate change). These vastly different levels of resolution are woven into something that feels interconnected, which itself ties into Obama’s personal philosophy of equality and a promise to take all things into fair consideration.
His delivery is not without minor flaws; he does have a couple slips of the tongue. About 20 minutes in, he stumbles very slightly over a word, and it happens again a few minutes later. I really noticed the slips because up ’til then, there hadn’t been any. So I rewound to watch him more closely at that moment- and he was totally unfazed. His face betrayed no nervousness or distraction- he just allowed himself a very slight, controlled pause to give the crowd a chance to figure out what he meant- and then he went on.
When I do any kind of public speaking I usually deal with moments like that by kind of acknowledging the mistake, grinning my way around it or even doing some kind of gibberish rewind moment to get a quick laugh- but I’m not a Presidential candidate giving a foriegn policy speech. When I speak somewhere, I’m usually expected to deliver energy first, information second- so making that moment goofy is appropriate.
Obama’s reactions when he flubs, or, even more tellingly, when he’s interrupted by long, impassioned cheers, suggest that he’s invested in the information, not the reaction. He’s not self-indulgently flagellating himself for slipping on a word, nor is his ego basking in the applause. It makes me suspect that after a speech, he’s more likely to feel good because “they were receptive to the ideas” than because he “had them in the palm of his hand”. He’s focussed on the message, not on himself as the medium. For me, this is the root of his charisma.
Ah yes, the famous Obama charisma. It’s more than good looks and a nice voice. Notice that he is at once fiercely proud and appealingly humble: you can probably count on one hand the number of times he says “I”; and yet he leaves the listener with a rock-solid sense of who he is as a person. There’s something epic about this man. It’s easy for me to imagine him in a leather doublet, riding an armoured horse, leading a Tolkien-esque army into battle. Yeah, sometimes I think about stuff like that. Don’t pretend you don’t.
For some reason msnbc won’t let me embed the video (which they’ve helpfully titled, “On foreign soil, Obama acknowledges US flaws”- thanks for trying, guys!) But lucky for you, Dr. Shadowfax was able to put it up.