EARNING TRUST AND CONFIDENCE - Say It Like Obama: The Power of Speaking with Purpose and Vision - Shel Leanne

Say It Like Obama: The Power of Speaking with Purpose and Vision - Shel Leanne (2009)


If you aspire to be a highly effective leader, people must trust your judgment and ethics and have confidence in your leadership abilities, believing that you are worthy of authority. In the absence of trust and confidence, nothing else follows. A first task of every aspiring leader, therefore, is to earn the trust and confidence of those they seek to lead. Barack Obama has done this with great success, gaining the trust and confidence of the broad array of people who make up his diverse coalition—everyday citizens, politicians, large donors, policymakers, members of the media establishment. He has drawn on this trust and confidence to capture key opportunities and expand his influence. Key communication practices have aided Obama in his quest. Using communication as a tool for gaining support, Obama has displayed great personal charisma. He takes steps to form a strong first impression and to leverage excellent second impressions. Obama also employs effective gestures, skillfully uses props, gets off to strong beginnings, and conveys admirable ethics. This chapter explores these practices, which have enabled Barack Obama to earn the trust and confidence of millions of supporters both at home and abroad.


Most people say they know charisma when they see it—that certain fire in the eyes, passion, and command. They point, for example, to political leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy and Bhenazir Bhutto, and to popular leaders such as Oprah Winfrey. Dynamic leaders. Not the sort to give humdrum, droning speeches; far from the listless speaker who is unenthusiastic about their topic.

The words often invoked to describe Barack Obama—magnetic, electrifying, energizing, and inspiring—speak of his charisma as a leader. Obama has a presentation and style that enable him to earn the confidence of listeners, inspire them, and move them to action. Obama manages to captivate audiences. From the moment he steps in front of an audience with his confident gait, people see a blend of passion and authority. He conveys charisma through many nonverbal attributes—the bright, broad smile; the confident sparkle in the eyes; his resonant voice; and body movement suggesting authority. Part of Obama's charisma involves his ability to convey his enthusiasm and passion effectively. He usually appears closely wedded to the things he talks about, cares deeply about the subjects and is eager to share. His enthusiasm energizes people young and old.

Perhaps as important as having charisma is the ability to use it to establish an excellent first impression. First impressions last. This well-worn saying is true. In rising as fast as he has, from obscurity to clinching the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, Barack Obama has developed a formidable ability to establish a great first impression.


A first impression is a critically defining moment. The instant one person first moves into the presence of another, an opinion is formed. Even before you utter any words, you open a dialogue and have spoken volumes through image and body language. The strong first impression that Barack Obama makes reminds us that body movement and image speak a language to the audience as potent as anything said out loud.

Indeed, a highly influential executive coach and author of the book, CEO Material, D.A. Benton, once asked a group of young leaders at McKinsey & Company to imagine what they would do if they wanted to make people around them believe they were blind, even though they were not. She prodded them to consider. How would they try to look and act? Perhaps they would wear a pair of dark glasses, get a white cane and use that cane to feel their way across the floor. They might walk slowly or haltingly, displaying a bit of uncertainty about the path ahead. They might even get a guide dog and allow it to steer them down the street. In short, they would dress the part, act the part, and gather the right props. She then asked the group to consider the implications if they were seeking instead to project themselves as leaders.

The exercise was useful. Persons seeking to present themselves as leaders should dress the part, act the part, and gather the right props around them. This is because—without uttering a word—through first impressions these actions begin a dialogue and can lay an important foundation for commanding authority, gaining trust, and exercising effective leadership.

Barack Obama is adept at establishing excellent first impressions. The purposeful walk. The visual contact he makes with audiences early on, stretching his arm to them in a confident wave, narrowing the physical distance between himself and the audience. These mark the beginnings of a two-way conversation of sorts—it elicits a sit-up-and-listen response from audience members.

Good eye contact has also been valuable to Obama. Like Bill Clinton, he is perceived as never hesitating to establish firm eye contact; he thrives on connecting with members of his audience and is energized, not drained, by them. As Obama talks, he looks to one side of the room, sometimes with a slight nod of acknowledgment in that direction, and then to the other side. He varies his gaze throughout his discussions; by doing so naturally and smoothly, he pulls listeners in to his talks and engages audience members more fully. Audiences perceive this as respectful—the behavior of a person welcoming them. They also interpret the actions as trustworthy—the behavior of a person willing to look them in the eyes. Those good first impressions last.

The confidence displayed by Obama's pat-on-the-back greetings with some people who introduce him is also an early action that communicates his comfort. He is at ease. Standing before audiences, feet placed firmly and shoulders squared—the message is one of confidence and authority. Where there is a lectern, he often places his hands on each side of it, taking control. The lectern is clearly not a crutch, nor does Obama allow it to serve as an obstacle between him and the audience.

Imagine if, instead of displaying such confidence, Obama had walked onto the 2004 convention stage with his chin lowered, his gait hesitant and had offered only a sheepish wave. What a vastly different image that would have conveyed. By contrast, leaders who walk with a purposeful gait, stretch their arm and wave confidently establish a more commanding image and expand their presence. It is best to get off to a strong start and avoid situations in which you must work hard to reverse the damage of a poor first impression. Outstanding communicators take care and use image and body language in ways that wield a highly positive impact.


Another important means of earning trust and confidence can be seen through effective use of voice and intonation. After a leader comes out with a commanding, confident air, exuding the charisma of a leader, then what? Voice and intonation play a role here; both are important tools for increasing the effectiveness of communication.


One dimension of voice that creates an immediate impression is the quality of the voice—its natural pitch and resonance. For Barack Obama, his commanding baritone is a natural asset. It sounds pleasing to the ears and is very authoritative. For most speakers, natural tone quality can be improved and enhanced with practice and voice techniques.

Beyond natural tone quality, the precise way leaders use their voices becomes important to the impressions formed and how effective a speech ultimately is. There are multiple dimensions of the verbal communication beyond the words actually spoken. How the words are said can transform a bland recitation into a powerful speech. The tools of the skillful speaker include volume, voice texture, pitch, pace, and inflection. Effective voice and intonation can move people, make words more memorable, and make the communication more effective overall. Talks, delivered powerfully, can elicit responses such as, "Something tugged inside of me." Barack Obama achieves this sort of impact through skillful use of his voice and intonation, which reinforces the substance of his messages.


Barack Obama has shown the power of amplifying the voice at key moments. He uses volume to increase excitement as an audience rallies to his opinions. He knows how to stress important words at the right times, giving them an emphatic feel. He increases his volume when reaching a crescendo, the point when he hits the climax of his talk and underscores a key message. Just as he puts power in his volume when rousing a crowd, he knows how to allow his voice to trail off when speaking of something of which he disapproves. Amplifying and washing away—Barack Obama uses volume to enhance the efficacy of his delivery.

Pacing and Pregnant Pauses

Obama's outstanding use of pacing also greatly enhances the effectiveness of his communication. With well-chosen pacing, he slows when enunciating important ideas he wants to settle into the psyches of the listeners. He adopts clipped sentences at the right times, which helps to drive points home. The increase and decrease of his cadence allows him to draw listeners' attention to his most significant points.

Obama is also adept at leveraging silence and employing pregnant pauses. With pregnant pauses, Obama focuses attention on his more important themes, making his remarks more notable. He is also skilled at knowing when to let the silence endure a bit—very dramatic pauses that often elicit reaction from the audience.

Pitch and Emotional Texture

When assessing what makes Barack Obama such a powerful orator, it is easy to observe that he avoids drab recitations. He skillfully employs his delivery techniques. He has made an art of varying his volume and vocal color. The range of the inflections he uses—changes in the pitch of his voice—is also one of his strengths. He varies how he vocalizes key words, drawing on a range of vocal pitch to deepen the impact of what he says in a manner that cannot be achieved by the written word alone. His voice rises and falls when needed. For example, Obama knows how to drop his pitch, pulling on his lower register, and slow his cadence when he wishes to focus on a point, like underlining key words on a chalkboard.

Obama is also a master of strengthening his communication with vocal color. He can make his voice wistful, hopeful, dismissive, and a host of other emotional textures, as circumstances require. His ability to alter the emotional texture of his voice, which he reinforces with effective gestures, increases the impact of his communication.

Taken together, voice and intonation—emphasizing words at the right time, quickening or slowing the cadence, varying the tonal color, varying the rhythm of words—can result in superior communication power. Speeches and remarks become dynamic and full of impact and thereby part of a successful leader's strategic tool set.


Obama breaks the rules suggesting that gestures should be used sparingly. Frequent gesturing is part of his communication style. This works well for him because the movements are fluid and extensions of his words, and they convey his enthusiasm. They work in tandem with modulations of his voice and tone, and they thereby animate his words, providing valuable dimension to his remarks.

Obama's power as an orator helps illustrate that gestures can improve the impact of communication in multiple ways. For one, when used well, gestures create an impression that a speaker is at ease and relating well with the audience. Barack Obama, in particular, employs gestures in ways that create the feel of a one-to-one conversation, as if he is standing next to you conversing, rather than standing on a podium addressing an audience. His gestures help narrow the distance. Whether this involves an outstretched hand to the audience, pinched fingers at appropriate times, or a raised hand, his gestures transform his speeches into dialogues and establish a sense that you are standing near him enjoying an animated conversation.

The use of gestures can also create the sense that a speaker is deeply invested in a topic and earnest in their desire to get others to see their points. For example, a hand placed sincerely over the heart shows deeply felt emotion. Additionally, effective gestures make speech more lively, engaging and memorable. Cupping fingers in a C, as if placing words on air. Waving an index finger side-to-side, chastising. Motioning fingers toward oneself, beckoning someone near. A "disdainful flick" of the hand, shooing someone away. A soft fist. A closed fist. A palm held out to the audience in a little stop sign. These and countless other gestures can breathe life into speech. As Obama has shown, the precision of certain gestures enhances the descriptive content of oration and underscores key ideas, increasing the potency of spoken words.


The use of props can be another important way to create impressions as well as to reinforce key messages. Consider our earlier example: if you want to convince others you are blind, what props would you use? Sunglasses, a dog, a white cane? Now extend the example. If political candidates are attempting to look presidential, what props might they use? They might flank themselves with large national flags on each side of a lectern. If speakers are trying to look strong on foreign policy, what props might they use? They might choose to invite military leaders to stand behind them when they make their foreign policy pronouncements.

If a speaker is seeking to present themselves as a leader, what props are appropriate? While the answers will depend in part upon the circumstances—the type of audience and its mood, or the subject and goal of the talk, for instance—the role of props in creating impressions should not be overlooked. For the Democrat seeking to connect with Republicans, a red tie conveys a subtle message. For leaders seeking to demonstrate their religious values, they might choose to deliver a speech in a church, where the physical background frames their comments. Similarly, leaders seeking to project authority in a casual setting might choose to forgo the coat and tie, dressing only a tad bit more formally than the audience. They might also arrange the room in a way that will make the audience comfortable (perhaps a room with chairs formed in a circle and no podium, rather than a more formal setting of a podium and lectern). Props—what others call staging—are an important source of nonverbal messaging. Carefully choosing backgrounds for delivering talks or leading groups is important. The backdrop helps to frame remarks.

Barack Obama has shown considerable skill in using props and staging to reinforce his messages. When he first announced his bid for the White House on February 10,2007, for instance, he delivered his remarks in Springfield, Illinois, which naturally evoked memories of the lauded U.S. president Abraham Lincoln. Obama fixed attention on the significance of the setting, stating:

It was here, in Springfield, where north, south, east, and west come together that I was reminded of the essential decency of the American people—where I came to believe that through this decency, we can build a more hopeful America.

And that is why, in the shadow of the Old State Capitol, where Lincoln once called on a divided house to stand together, where common hopes and common dreams still live, I stand before you today to announce my candidacy for president of the United States.

I recognize there is a certain presumptuousness—a certain audacity—to this announcement. I know I haven't spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington. But I've been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change.

The genius of our founders is that they designed a system of government that can be changed. And we should take heart, because we've changed this country before. In the face of tyranny, a band of patriots brought an empire to its knees. In the face of secession, we unified a nation and set the captives free. In the face of Depression, we put people back to work and lifted millions out of poverty. We welcomed immigrants to our shores, we opened railroads to the west, we landed a man on the moon, and we heard a King's call to let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Each and every time, a new generation has risen up and done what's needed to be done. Today we are called once more—and it is time for our generation to answer that call.

For that is our unyielding faith—that in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it.

That's what Abraham Lincoln understood. He had his doubts. He had his defeats. He had his setbacks. But through his will and his words, he moved a nation and helped free a people. It is because of the millions who rallied to his cause that we are no longer divided, North and South, slave and free. It is because men and women of every race, from every walk of life, continued to march for freedom long after Lincoln was laid to rest, that today we have the chance to face the challenges of this millennium together, as one people—as Americans.i

Similarly, when addressing the Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy, Obama carefully considered the nonverbal messages he would be sending. Given his association with the controversial minister, Obama needed to address the incendiary words of Reverend Wright, which were perceived by many Americans to be racist and contrary to the values Obama espouses. Obama's association with Wright threatened the very foundation of his candidacy. Obama delivered his remarks from a lectern flanked by large American flags. While denouncing the divisive words of Reverend Wright, the large flags in back of Obama reinforced the notion that he is a loyal, patriotic American. The backdrop helped frame his remarks and sent a positive message.


Another communication practice that helps Barack Obama earn trust and confidence is his ability to start "strong." By this, I mean he begins his talks in ways that tap into the prevailing mood, lighten any tensions, and focus attention. There are many ways to start strong—a moving quotation, a vivid anecdote, a light-hearted joke, a direct statement about the topic of the discussion, to name a few.

Given his consistency with strong starts, Obama seems keenly aware that if leaders begins their remarks in a weak manner, they will need to spend too much time recovering, trying to persuade people to give them another look. In practice, his motto could be characterized as, "Get off on the right foot the first time." Obama's achievements testify to the positive impact of catching attention early and steering audience focus to the most important themes. Consider, for example, Obama's win of the North Carolina primary. He used his beginning remarks to draw attention to the momentum of his campaign. He stated:

You know, some were saying that North Carolina would be a game-changer in this election. But today, what North Carolina decided is that the only game that needs changing is the one in Washington, D.C.

I want to start by congratulating Senator Clinton on her victory in the state of Indiana. And I want to thank the people of North Carolina for giving us a victory in a big state, a swing state, and a state where we will compete to win if I am the Democratic nominee for president of the United States.

When this campaign began, Washington didn't give us much of a chance. But because you came out in the bitter cold, and knocked on doors, and enlisted your friends and neighbors in this cause; because you stood up to the cynics and the doubters and the nay-sayers when we were up and when we were down; because you still believe that this is our moment, and our time, for change—tonight we stand less than two hundred delegates away from securing the Democratic nomination for president of the United States.ii

Even in the light of defeat, Obama skillfully chooses opening words. Consider, for instance, his remarks following his loss of the Pennsylvania primary. He projected that loss as a "win-because-we-narrowed-the-margin" situation:

I want to start by congratulating Senator Clinton on her victory tonight, and I want to thank the hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians who stood with our campaign today.

There were a lot of folks who didn't think we could make this a close race when it started. But we worked hard, and we traveled across the state to big cities and small towns, to factory floors, and VFW halls. And now, six weeks later, we closed the gap. We rallied people of every age and race and background to our cause. And whether they were inspired for the first time or for the first time in a long time, we registered a record number of voters who will lead our party to victory in November.iii

Obama is so aware of the importance of beginning strong that when put in awkward positions unexpectedly, he makes sure to re-set the tone of the conversation before proceeding with his remarks. A notable example of this occurred in December 2006 when Barack Obama appeared before a group of 2,000 Christians at a conference on HIV/AIDS at Saddleback Church in southern California. Another politician speaking at the same event, Senator Sam Brownback, spoke minutes before Obama. Standing on the church podium, Senator Brownback began his remarks to the primarily Caucasian audience by mentioning that he and Senator Obama had both recently addressed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and that, "They were very polite to me, but I think they kind of wondered 'Who's this guy from Kansas?'" Brownback complained that, by contrast, the NAACP and its audience had treated Obama like a rock star and Brownback seemed to imply that the difference was racial. He turned to Obama, seated behind him on the podium, and joked that he believed the tables were now turned, saying, "Welcome to my house."

Sitting in the room, I recall the shock that registered with many people in the audience. Barack Obama is a Christian, and we were sitting in a church! Brownback's comment seemed, rightly or wrongly, racially charged; it suggested that even though Obama was Christian, the church was not his house because the majority of people in the audience were white. It is very possible to argue that Brownback did not, in fact, intend this meaning and only referred to the audience's conservative bent, or that he misspoke, but the words were highly insulting and placed Senator Obama in a very awkward position.

When Brownback finished his speech minutes later and Obama moved to the lectern, many audience members seemed to hold their breaths, wondering if Obama would address the insult. It was no secret that some isolated evangelicals had been upset to learn that Obama would be appearing at the event and had sought to have him uninvited. Obama began by offering greetings from his church, underscoring quite intentionally that he was Christian. He then proceeded to offer Brownback compliments and more compliments. To my recollection, Obama spoke about how it was an honor to work with Senator Brown-back on so many important issues and he praised Brownback's leadership. He went on at some length—a truly gracious beginning in light of the insult he had just received.

Then Obama did something quite brilliant. Before he proceeded to start his speech, he took the opportunity—having placed himself on the moral high ground by refusing to come out swinging—to turn to Senator Brownback who was seated at the back of the church podium. Obama smiled and said, "There is one thing I've got to say, Sam. This is my house, too! This is God's house."

The crowd erupted in applause. "I just wanted to be clear!" Obama said, riding the wave of support. Obama had set the record straight. Had he not, he would have started "weak" and proceeded forward in a highly compromised position, which could have undercut his speech. Instead, he successfully recast the dialogue and proceeded with a well-received talk.


Finally, making certain to convey admirable ethics is an important way to earn trust and confidence. When a leader succeeds in conveying strong ethics and substantiates those ethics consistently through subsequent deeds, people begin to have great faith in their character and choices. Conveying strong ethics also has the added benefit of helping to "develop Teflon"—that is, a leader can build such an excellent ethical reputation that accusations and controversy "bounce off" of them rather than stick. When controversy arises, there is a greater likelihood that people will respond by thinking, "No, that is not who I have seen all this time." They are more likely to await an explanation and give a leader a chance.

In his public pronouncements, Barack Obama takes opportunities to convey his high ethical standards and commitment to principled values. Consider his remarks during his 2007 announcement for president in Springfield, Illinois:

[L]et me tell you how I came to be here. As most of you know, I am not a native of this great state. I moved to Illinois over two decades ago. I was a young man then, just a year out of college; I knew no one in Chicago, was without money or family connections. But a group of churches had offered me a job as a community organizer for $13,000 a year. And I accepted the job, sight unseen, motivated then by a single, simple, powerful idea—that I might play a small part in building a better America.

My work took me to some of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods. I joined with pastors and lay-people to deal with communities that had been ravaged by plant closings. I saw that the problems people faced weren't simply local in nature—that the decision to close a steel mill was made by distant executives; that the lack of textbooks and computers in schools could be traced to the skewed priorities of politicians a thousand miles away; and that when a child turns to violence, there's a hole in his heart no government alone can fill.

It was in these neighborhoods that I received the best education I ever had and where I learned the true meaning of my Christian faith.

After three years of this work, I went to law school because I wanted to understand how the law should work for those in need. I became a civil rights lawyer and taught constitutional law, and after a time, I came to understand that our cherished rights of liberty and equality depend on the active participation of an awakened electorate. It was with these ideas in mind that I arrived in this capital city as a state senator.

It was here, in Springfield, where I saw all that is America converge—farmers and teachers, businessmen and laborers, all of them with a story to tell, all of them seeking a seat at the table, all of them clamoring to be heard. I made lasting friendships here—friends that I see in the audience today.

It was here we learned to disagree without being disagreeable—that it's possible to compromise so long as you know those principles that can never be compromised; and that so long as we're willing to listen to each other, we can assume the best in people instead of the worst.iv

In offering this short summary of his life choices, Obama underscored his principled values, morality and commitment to community.

Similarly, Obama conveys admirable ethics by taking care in how he criticizes his opponents. When criticizing presidential candidate John McCain, for instance, he usually takes care to first affirm McCain's service to the country. This helps him avoid an image of mudslinging. For instance, Obama said:

In just a few short months, the Republican party will arrive in St. Paul with a very different agenda. They will come here to nominate John McCain, a man who has served this country heroically. I honor that service, and I respect his many accomplishments, even if he chooses to deny mine. My differences with him are not personal; they are with the policies he has proposed in this campaign.v

Obama's care in conveying strong ethics has helped him to weather storms and to build his historic campaign around themes such as "leadership you can trust," and "change you can believe in."


Given Obama's tremendous success, leaders have much to learn from the way he uses excellent communication practices to earn the trust and confidence of others. We have seen that charisma plays a role in earning trust and confidence. People know charisma when they see it—that certain fire in the eye, passion and command. Charisma helps leaders energize and motivate others. Image and body language are also important for forming strong first impressions. Adept leaders capitalize on that first defining moment. Through skillful use of body movement and image, they start a two-way dialogue of sorts, making excellent impressions that last. This helps establish a firm foundation for commanding authority and wielding leadership.

Notable second impressions can reinforce strong first impressions. Through voice, intonation and skillful use of gestures, effective communicators underscore their confidence, self-assuredness, and worthiness as a leader. Effective communicators also bear in mind that how they say their words can give great potency to their remarks. They leverage excellent use of voice and intonation. Similarly, gestures serve as their tools, becoming fluid extensions of their spoken words, animating their dialogue and bringing greater impact to their pronouncements.

Strong communicators remember the importance of props and staging in sending sub-messages that reinforce key themes. They make efforts to "start strong" with their remarks, tapping into the prevailing mood and ensuring they begin their dialogues on favorable footing. Additionally, exceptional communicators take opportunities to convey their strong ethics, deepening a basis for trust and confidence that can bring benefits well into the future.