Something shocking happened to Barack Obama on Thursday the 5th of June, 2008. He was addressing a meeting of the local community in Bristol, Virginia, when in the midst of his usual rhetorical flow, the wheels of his speech suddenly flew off and he ground to an inarticulate halt.
Here’s a transcript of Obama’s slip up: “Everybody knows that it makes no sense… that you send a kid to the emergency room for a treatable illness like asthma, they end up taking up a hospital bed, it costs… when… if you… they just gave… you gave up a hospital bed, it costs… when… if you… they just gave… you gave ‘em treatment early and they got… some treatment… and… er… a breathalyzer… or an inhalator… not a breathalyzer… (audience laughter)… I haven’t had much sleep in the last forty-eight hours or so…”
What had gone wrong? Had lack of sleep really caused Obama’s muse to nod off momentarily? Apparently not, what had happened was that his autocue had broken down for a couple of minutes.
Not surprisingly, the incident was enthusiastically seized upon by right wing critics as a stick to beat Obama’s presidential credentials to a pulp. The doyen of American right wing commentators, Rush Limbaugh, was unmoved by Obama’s lack of sleep excuse. As far as he was concerned, the fiasco proved beyond doubt that, shorn of his autocue and speech writers, Obama just didn’t have what it took to be president.
But Limbaugh was mistaken to accuse Obama of being nothing more than a ventriloquist’s dummy for his speech writers. Obama is a fine writer who takes a very active role in producing his own speeches in collaboration with a small team of speechwriters; and he is arguably the most accomplished wordsmith to have entered the White House since John F. Kennedy.
The illusion of spontaneity
I first became aware of Obama’s autocue (or teleprompter, as the Americans call it) habit while watching television coverage of his rousing victory speech at Grant Park in Chicago. There was a sudden cut from a head-on shot to a long shot of him behind the lectern; and in that instant the spell was broken for me.
The abrupt change of perspective revealed the narrow edge of an autocue glinting in the glare of the floodlights. A little rooting around on the Internet confirmed the shocking truth: it appeared that whenever Obama and his team hit the campaign trail, his trusty autocue was always top of his packing list.
I felt like a child who’d just found out there’s no Santa. Despite being a professional speech coach, it looked as though I had allowed my enthusiasm for Obama’s eloquence to blind me to the simple fact that his greatest oratorical gift amounted to little more than being a brilliant reader of autocues.
But my disappointment was, of course, unreasonable. After all, Obama’s Republican opponent John McCain was a slave to his autocue too; and his running mate Sarah Palin would have been lost without hers. Last year, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg seemed to have bucked the trend when he gave a conference speech without notes while walking up and down the stage. The excitement was short-lived though when it was later revealed that the illusion of spontaneity had been sustained by the use of a radically new kind of autocue.
So it would be unfair to criticize Obama’s dependence on the autocue given that nowadays autocues are part and parcel of almost every important political speech – when you’re talking on the record, the detailed arrangement and choice of words matters. But we’ve all been to conferences and seen speakers amuse and charm an audience for an hour or so without any technical assistance whatsoever – not even a set of cue cards.
A few months ago I watched in admiration as a high-profile chief executive gave a Nick Clegg-style sixty-minute conference address. Unlike Mr Clegg, though, this speaker pulled it off without resorting to a single artificial aid. He appeared to be speaking ‘off the cuff’, yet managed to give a well-structured, entertaining and inspiring speech. As the performance drew to a close and the applause started up, one of the delegates turned to me and whispered, “yes, he is a very good speaker but I wish he’d vary it a bit – I heard him give exactly the same speech a month ago.”
Practice makes perfect
Even the very best public speakers are only flesh and blood. Like the rest of us, they have to rely on either a good back-up system (such as an autocue, a set of notes, even a script) or, if they have enough time, a great deal of practice to prime their memory and polish their act. Of course, part of the art of public speaking is to cover this up – to create the illusion that it all comes naturally. But, rest assured, the world-renowned keynote speaker who effortlessly seduces her audience has perfected the telling of her tales over many years. And the comedian who has them weeping in the aisles with laughter has honed his word-perfect routine in front of many tough audiences.
Our keynote speaker and comedian were fortunate in having had enough time to try out their performances on a variety of audiences and practise them until they became second nature. Obama didn’t have this luxury; his victory speech in Grant Park was a one-off watched by an audience of millions, just like his other great campaign speeches. In truth, without the help of an autocue, his punishing schedule of campaign speech-making would have been an impossibility.
If we want to learn from Obama and other great speakers, we must take care not to be blinded and overawed by their brilliance – which can have the effect of intimidating the rest of us, and feeding our anxieties about our own performance. Instead we should look beneath the surface of what they do to the technique that underpins it. Great oratory is always founded on sound technique and plenty of practice. Understanding this helps us to overcome our fear of public speaking because, when it comes to being an outstanding orator, knowledge really is power.