The Gifted Speaker
Presidents vary enormously in their ability to speak effectively in public, a reminder that a public-speaking ability is not a prerequisite for high office.
Consider the one speaking event that all presidents have shared in common: their inaugural address, a tradition whose form has evolved over the years but which dates all the way back to George Washington's address to Congress in 1789, as historian Jill Lepore delightfully chronicles in the January 12 issue of The New Yorker.
Duration is not a defining quality. One address ran just 135 words (Washington's second inaugural); one sentence in another ran more than 700 words (John Adams' inaugural). Many have long been forgotten. But a few have entered phrases into American memory, including Abraham Lincoln's "the better angels of our nature," and John F. Kennedy's "ask not what your country can do for you."
Barack Obama's address is likely to be long remembered not just because of the extraordinary moment in which he takes office. As has often been noted by many observers, his speaking style is exceptionally effective. From having personally witnessed his speaking at four events and watching dozens of others on television, several qualities quickly come to mind: direct, sober, calm, deliberative, informed, uplifting, stirring, and - of course - hopeful.
No rhetoric science here. All can be mastered, though some find mastery more challenging than others.
I am often asked by MBA students at my school what they can do to improve their speaking ability, and on the premise that hard work makes more perfect, I suggest study and practice. Study includes learning from exceptional orators such as Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, and from instructive books such as Peggy Noonan's On Speaking Well and Richard Green's Words That Shook the World. Practice includes finding speaking opportunities at the workplace, in the community, and through such venues at Toastmasters.
Few are naturally gifted speakers, and a life-long determination to improve is essential for most. And we are all soon to be treated to a live moment for such learning from one of the best public speakers of our era, President Barack H. Obama.
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