Obama’s Rhetoric – The Art That Conceals Art

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.


  1. Another interesting post. And thanks for posting the fascinating the video, which I hadn’t seen before. He’d probably have been able to recover better if, instead of doing the walk-about, he’d been at a lectern with paper script as back-up, as happened in the only other clip I’ve seen where a teleprompter went on the blink – when Ronald Reagan was speaking to the European Parliament in Strasbourg. On that occasion, the maestro did a neat ad-lib as he moved his eyes from the screens to the lectern before carrying on as if nothing had happened (as can be seen at http://bit.ly/bWEg7f

  2. Martin Shovel says

    Really good point about having a paper script as backup – thanks Max! Thanks too for the fascinating Reagan video clip, which I’ve never seen before. Love him, or hate him, there’s no denying he was a great communicator and performer when it came to public speaking!

  3. As a fan of Obama, having worked on his campaign staff, I, too think he is a captivating speaker, keenly open to learning. That’s why I hope he grows into a “talking with” more than “lecturing at” albeit in a compelling way…. sometimes without the benefit of a teleprompter. Via astute Max (above) I discovered this treasure of a site. Thank you.

  4. Martin Shovel says

    Thanks for your lovely comment Kare. I’ve just begun following you on Twitter – hope I can tempt you to reciprocate! Cheers, Martin

  5. Great article Martin. We truly are well into an era where to be successful, a politician needs to be a convincing speaker, with or without an autocue. There is still a place for actual policies and ideologies, but without the style, nobody pays much attention to the substance.

    Increasingly, leaders need to inspire people and inspire confidence. There’s an argument that if that’s all they do while in office, they might do less harm – after all, it’s mostly the civil servants and underlings who actually keep the country running. A key job of a political leader is to ensure citizens have confidence that everything will keep running, that the economy is strong and that the future is bright, while not acting to prevent any of the above. Inspiring confidence is the one thing the civil servants can’t do, yet in our fragile economy it’s so vital.

    Would someone with the charisma of John Major be electable today?

  6. Great post. It can be disappointing when you realise that somebody you were so in awe of is a ‘fake’ – if that’s the way you look at it. But you were right in concluding that everybody’s human. Just because someone uses certain techniques or aids, doesn’t make them any worse at what they do. We don’t criticise a tennis player for using a specific type of racquet, do we?

  7. Ian Mackenzie says

    An accomplished speaker should be easily capable of talking on an impromptu basis for 30 minutes or more – provided they have a structure and their key points in mind. I often talk to audiences for an hour or more on this basis and I’m sure Obama et al could do so too. The difference is that people scrutinise every word in politics nowadays, looking for clues and cracks in the content. That is why they need autocues – to ensure carefully crafted speeches get delivered verbatim. It is also why most politicians, Blair and Barack included, are so stultifyingly dull – no opinions, no risk, no real emotion……and why most people are bored to death with politics.

  8. I’d like to support, and develop, Ian’s comments above. I too regularly talk for long-ish periods without notes or technical help, and I rely on two things to do so: (1) my firm belief in what I am saying; and (2) my knowledge of the subject.

    Does that mean that I never make a slip-up? No. Does that mean that I never have to correct myself? No. Does it mean that my talks are varied, flexible, responsive to my audience, and authentic? I certainly hope so.

    We, the public, with the help and guidance of the media, have come to expect unreasonable perfection in our politicians, which is why so many of the successful ones are little more than polished Barbie & Ken -a-likes. The real, authentic politicians, the ones who may never achieve the highest office (but who do seem to have much more longevity), occasionally slip off the fine line of the approved word, the catchy phrase, and the focus-group tested statement, but slowly, over time, they gently win our respect and affection.

    Perhaps we need to be less quick to judge perceived slip-ups, but quicker to see the benefits of appreciating authenticity.

    Great article, thanks Martin.

  9. Manikandan says

    What leaders need is:

    1. Background knowledge in high-spots of current affairs
    2. A little bit of self notes should technology support (like autocue) fail
    3. Tremendous presence of mind and capability to quip / slip a laughter or
    divert and recover back to topic
    4. Sometimes too many rounds of speeches do tend to make one repetitive –
    spend less time on self notes. But, one has to strike a wavelength with one’s
    own team so that keywords / vocabulary used will gel with self thinking
    pattern that will often help to recall or continue speech even if things like
    autocue fails (words like inhalator & breathelyser are not top vocabulary

  10. Martin

    Another great post. Thank you!

    I’m always struck by how 100 people can watch the same speech and emerge with 100 different conclusions. The reason of course is that most of us come to acts of communication to have our views re-inforced, not challenged. Hence, right-wingers leapt on this to say it proved what they’d thought all along: Obama was a puppet. However, my own view, as an Obama-phile, was different. I thought he recovered pretty well, PARTICULARLY given that he was on walkabout without a paper back-up.

    The moments when speakers are forced off-piste, whether through technological failure or sharp questioning, provide a far better test of character than their ability to read a script. In my book, Obama passed those tests with flying colours. He didn’t get angry or frustrated, he simply laughed nervously, tried to blag it and joshed around with the audience. Very human. Very natural. Easy to identify with.

    I remember cringing when watching an autocue crash on one (very senior) politician. He stopped his speech dead. Then he shook his head saying, ‘Oh dear… Oh dear…’ It was clear the technician was in for a beating! This left the audience with a far clearer insight into his character than they’d have otherwise gained, if not the kind of impression he’d have wanted to leave!

    Very best wishes


  11. Very interesting post and comments.

    I for one like to see professional speakers trip up. It reminds me that they are human. And if it happened more often wouldn’t we be forced to have more conversations?

    Like most people I enjoy some lectures, but most political speeches leave me completely cold. I think it’s because I get the sense that I am being ‘told’ what to think, and I don’t enjoy the attempt at manipulation.

    Is there a way for speakers to make their talks more interactive, and more like conversations? Where the needs of the listener are better considered? Where the listener has a more active role?


  12. peter odemwingie says

    I think another interesting point about Obama’s speeches, and the reason behind their success, is the simultaneous use of two autocue devices. This helps him to seem as though he is looking out to different parts of his audience, and including everyone in his speeches, by having one autocue to his right and one to his left.

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