BEFORE first-time US Senator Barack Obama delivered his mesmerising keynote address at the Democratic Convention in July 2004, the 42-year-old Harvard law graduate was virtually unknown.
Four years later, despite his lack of executive experience and his African-American heritage, he was elected the United States of America’s 44th president.
Apart from his formidable intellect, the cornerstone of his success was undoubtedly his oratorial skills, a gift he shares with other charismatic speakers like Winston Churchill and John F Kennedy.
Why makes Obama so charismatic? Why did Americans vote for him? Here is a summary of the key elements of his public speaking techniques, which you can emulate to enrich your presentations:
1. Give people hope
When your audience is facing adversity — financial turmoil, retrenchment, home foreclosures — lift their hopes. Acknowledge the situation and remind them of reasons to be optimistic.
In his inaugural address, President Obama inspired Americans to choose “hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord”. Acknowledging the huge challenges facing them, such as the war in Iraq and the worst recession since the Great Depression, he told Americans: “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America.”
2. Project yourself as a winner
Even though you are facing difficulties, act with confidence that you will overcome the bad times. Project yourself as positive and healthy.
After his defeat in the New Hampshire primaries, Mr Obama delivered a speech full of optimism that would rally his supporters. He said: “We know the battle ahead will be long. But always remember, no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change... there has never been anything false about hope.”
3. Use rich imagery
Help your audience to create mental pictures through your words. Employ all the five senses — visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory (smell) and gustatory (taste). Civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King was a master of this technique.
In 2004, Mr Obama painted a picture of what he meant by the audacity of hope: “It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs, the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores, the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta, the hope of a millworker’s son who dares to defy the odds, the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.”
4. Use figurative language
A metaphor is an imaginative way of assigning new meaning to things. During the Cold War, to highlight the spread of Communism, Winston Churchill described Russia as the Iron Curtain. When China fell to Mao Tse-tung’s Communists, it became the Bamboo Curtain.
President Obama suggested that the US would be prepared to extend a hand of peace to one of its opponents if it “unclenched its fist”.
5. Employ contrast
When Neil Armstrong first landed on the moon on July 1, 1969, he declared: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” The juxtaposition of these contrasting images emphasised the lunar mission’s great technological achievement.
At his last rally at Manassas in Virginia on November 3, 2008, the night before the election, Mr Obama stressed to voters that a better future was in their hands. He said: “Tomorrow you can choose policies that invest in our middle class, create new jobs and grow this economy so that everybody has a chance to succeed. Not just the CEO but the secretary and the janitor; not just the factory owner but the men and women who work the factory floor.”
His message of change resonated with Americans and won him the White House.