What can we learn from Obama’s Arizona speech?

The media are claiming President Obama’s speech in Arizona last week was his best yet – and it had to be. After the horrific shooting incident on 8th January that left a Congresswoman needing brain surgery and a 9 year old girl (and 5 others) dead, Obama’s address at the Tuscon memorial service needed to hit the right tone.

Following his ‘shellacking’ at the polls last November and a weakened position on Capitol Hill, the Commander-in-Chief needed to show strength in the face of a hostile Right led by Sarah Palin. But whereas Palin opted for vitriol when asked to comment on the shootings (and her alleged role in creating a toxic political environment), Obama chose to be, well…presidential.

While admired as a skilled orator, it’s often been observed that the American leader is a cerebral figure. Reflecting on his presidency, some have claimed that he, “lacked empathy…was a slightly aloof figure, that he struggled to connect emotionally”. (Jonathan Friedland, The Guardian 14/1/2011). But he began to unravel this reputation with a memorial speech that described the individuals who had died, including young Christina Taylor Green, the 9 year old who was born, of all days, on 11 September 2001. In this respect, claims Friedland, he, “spoke less like a politician than a pastor comforting a grieving community”.

Several points here:

First, at times of crisis people look to a leader to provide spiritual guidance, not just practical solutions. They have to speak well and hit the right tone, capturing the mood and most importantly empathising with their audience. Clinton was a master at this, in a league of his own.

Second, audiences respond well to people-related speeches – after all, they’re ALL people so you’re bound to find common ground if you talk about emotions, conflict, personalities, highs and lows. Even technical presentations can benefit from an injection of the human element – it adds colour, aids understanding and makes it more likely the audience will buy YOU.

Third, if you’re going to give a speech or presentation you’ve got to understand your audience and the context in which you’re delivering. Imagine if Obama had gone for out-and-out attack on Palin. How would that rancour and bitterness have sat with an audience grieving for the loss of loved ones? He could have used the occasion to stoke up anger against the Right. But instead he opted to be, in the words of one analyst, the “adult in the room”.

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