Presentation Mastery: What You Can Really Learn From Obama’s Oratory Skills: This Isn’t Acting

When someone makes the difficult look easy, we tend to label him or her “a natural.” President Barack Obama is no exception.

His ability to move people through soaring rhetoric and appealing rhythms of his delivery is now the stuff of legends. Detractors often attribute the president’s strong popularity in large part to his oratorical skills, not his ideas. It is the president’s personae and sheer natural magnetism at work they insist, nothing more.

The problem with the argument is that it assumes good communication skills are the same as good acting skills. It presumes that intent and belief by the speaker in what is said is irrelevant, and that, cynically, people can’t tell the difference. It’s that one assumption, that substance takes a back seat to style (and sometimes isn’t even riding in the same car), that holds back many if not most executives from communicating effectively in public.

Any executive looking to improve presentation skill or public speaking confidence must first understand the basics.

In fact, acting and presenting are not the same. In the real world, ideas and words have to align with what an audience knows or thinks they know about a subject and speaker. Contrary to popular notion, assuming audience ignorance or indifference of your own involvement is dangerous. In fact, what other reason is there in this day and age to expect others to leave their offices and devote valuable time listening to presentations or speeches, if not for the audience being able to “see for themselves” whether and how the speaker and his or her ideas resonate? If the speaker really made no difference in our judgment, then all communication could take place out of sight or in written formats.

There are still powerful reasons for us to watch someone communicate their ideas and to judge their veracity and effectiveness for ourselves. The president’s communication mastery is no lucky accident. Mr. Obama has developed his strengths as a public communicator precisely by understanding the links between his ideas and the way those ideas can most powerfully persuade others; techniques any executive can borrow from:

  • Start with what you know. Yes, there will be times when you do not have or cannot address the full picture. Get rid of your discomfort through preparation and practice. Work to build your presentation or speech around those areas you are comfortable addressing. If you are forthcoming about what you do know, your audience will understand if you do not have all the answers immediately.
  • Don’t speculate about what you don’t know. Being forthcoming does not mean taking a stab at addressing every possible concern or question on the topic, regardless of your expertise. Be clear on your purpose for presenting or speaking, and the value you bring on that topic to your audience. Don’t seek to lecture. Seek to communicate.
  • Be clear. Never leave an audience wondering what your position is, why they are listening to you or what you expect them to do with the information you’re giving them. Of all the things you could say about your topic, only choose the things that are relevant to your audience and that they need to know.
  • They’re listening, not reading. Write and speak “for the ear”, the way you normally communicate orally. Your audience cannot re-read your remarks, so seek to be understood the first time. Use a natural communication style, enunciating your words and using the vocabulary you’re comfortable with.
  • Let them judge. Understand your audience is looking for your perspective, not just data. Welcome their attention and build on it with examples, stories and experiences, not just facts. Relate those facts and data to some larger points and conclusions. Look for something to give your audience that they couldn’t have gotten from you any other way than by watching and listening.

Powerful public speaking and presentation skills aren’t “bestowed” on a few lucky individuals. They take work and practice. Start with something you want to communicate, match it with your strengths as a communicator, and leave the acting to actors.

Aileen Pincus is President of The Pincus Group Inc., an executive firm coaching firm offering training in presentation, speech, media and crisis communications. She can be reached at

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