Watching politicians speak and debate is fascinating. You see the whole range, from being bored to tears or moved to tears.
The cynical view of politicians is that they are only interested in two things, your donations and your vote. Unlike your CEO and your boss, you don’t work for them, so they have to work to persuade you. To do that they constantly have to frame and reframe the way you see the world and move you to action.
As the race for the US presidency enters its final lap, it’s instructive to compare Romney and Obama as presenters.
Note: A little background on the presenter types I refer to is here.
Romney is what we call a Teacher. Not that he’s ever taught anyone professionally, but he’s the presenter type we call a teacher. In presentation mode, a teacher works with structure, words and pictures* in that order. They speak in a very structured way and are very knowledgeable and facile with their content, although they generally deal with it at high levels. They can carry a long talk track in their heads. A teacher will always value the importance of their material, getting their points out there, over interaction and engagement. Because of this, they struggle with painting a picture and engaging people. This has been both the praise, and knock on Romney. In the praise column, he’s very smart, knows his stuff, and by all accounts will be a dangerous opponent in the debates. In the knock column, he’s a little wooden, is seen as detached from his audience and can’t quite get to that man of the people level. The teacher presenter type has to work hard on pictures. PowerPoint is ideal for them (if used well) as it can supply the pictures that provide emotion and engagement for an audience. The problem for Romney is that PowerPoint isn’t allowed in politics. But there are other ways to do this. Rhetorical questions and dialog with an audience. A little verbal seasoning (content free content that shows the human side) can help. Working on simple metaphors and colloquialisms can also help engagement. I don’t see Romney doing this naturally. He has a polished stump speech with well-written sound-bytes, but he doesn’t get beyond his type and engage. He seems to me like a history teacher at heart who substitutes on math, geography and a number of other subjects — but that’s not where his heart lies — and there is no authentic passion to shine through.
* A note on structure, words and pictures.
Obama is a Counselor. That isn’t a commentary on his Harvard law degree, it’s his presenter type. Like teachers, counselors struggle with creating pictures for their audience. For them, the order is words, structure, pictures. That means the counselor is naturally very eloquent and speaks in a very organized and structured way, but their downfall (like teachers) is that they put the importance of the material over interaction and engagement. In contrast to Romney, Obama speaks to his structure. In the 2008 presidential debates, he would frequently say, “look, it’s three things…” and then elaborate each point. If you watch him, especially in more off-the cuff remarks, he speaks his structure. In President mode he was criticized in some quarters for being a little too professorial and lecturing over listening. Campaign Obama isn’t like that. There is a clear and noticeable difference, which shows that his oratorical skills aren’t natural. They’re a result of his natural style and focused hard work. That work focuses on the pictures piece. He is able to engage and draw people in, with some very effective techniques. For example, he uses metaphors with simple cultural references that tie to the audience. Most recently on the stump, “It was a rerun. It could have been on Nick At Nite.” Viewers might as well have watched on a black-and-white TV with rabbit-ear antennas, he jokes. When his speeches drum up boos for the opposition, he has a very practiced, effective and engaging line, “no no no don’t boo… vote.” Lastly, Obama makes very effective use of rhetorical devices that suit his structured style. Frequent repetition of words and wordplay allow him to make structured and eloquent points, “he gives me hope, she gives me hope, that gives me hope” and “tax breaks, tax breaks, tax breaks.”
Political pundit Joe Scarborough acidly summarized the speaking skills the two candidates displayed in their convention addresses, tweeting, “The President said nothing in his speech tonight. But he said it so much better than Mitt Romney when he said nothing in Tampa.”
Gavin is a founding partner at fassforward Consulting Group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.