What Makes Obama a Good Speaker?

After studying the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, linguist Mark Liberman found that their speaking

After studying the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, linguist Mark Liberman found that their speaking styles are “radically different.”

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Then there’s Barack Obama.

His keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention instantly earned him a reputation as one of the Democratic Party’s great contemporary orators. And that reputation has only been further hyped since the beginning of the presidential campaign, most recently because of the wildly popular music video, “Yes We Can,” which set to music Obama’s primary night speech in New Hampshire. The video, created by Black Eyed Peas front man will.i.am, was released on Feb. 2 and has been viewed almost 10 million times on YouTube and yeswecansong.com.

Liberman, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks the most distinctive thing about Obama’s speeches isn’t the delivery, but the lyricism in the writing.

“You can take a short phrase like that, spoken any kind of way as long as it’s not dragged out, and sing over it,” he said. “There’s also a certain amount of repetition — the ‘Yes We Can’ theme — that allows this kind of weaving of vocal lines. But if that’s right, then what’s really musical about that speech was not so much its delivery, but its composition. It was written like a song, but not performed like a song.”

Linguist Geoff Nunberg, too, sees elements of Obama’s speeches that he says lend themselves to song.

“He does these parallel constructions,” said Nunberg, a researcher at Stanford University’s Center for the Study of Language and Information. “For example, he says, ‘It’s not because of this, it’s not because of that.’”

In a Jan. 20 New York Times story, Obama’s head speechwriter, 26-year-old Jon Favreau, said when writing speeches for Obama, he draws inspiration from John Kennedy, King and Robert F. Kennedy, suggesting, again, that Obama’s reputation as a master speechmaker owes a large debt to the simple act of borrowing devices from great public speakers of the past.

But Nunberg said there’s more to it than the writing.

“He’s mastered a certain cadence that’s very effective,” said Nunberg. “He turns to the right to make his first point with a rise, then he turns to his left with a fall to close.”

Nunberg said these engaging cadences are similar to those of Dr. King.

Though the movement helps hold the audience’s attention, too much movement, Nunberg said, can convey a lack of control. Obama, he said, has been able to balance the extremes like Kennedy.

When Obama is speaking, Nunberg said, his arms move, but his body orientation does not change. Also, he doesn’t let his arms get too far away from his body and he keeps his hands closed, instead of open. “He’s very cool in a sense that Kennedy was cool,” Nunberg said. “His gesture and his posture are controlled.”

Another similarity Obama has with Kennedy is his limited pitch range, which enables him to “convey passion without exhibiting it,” Nunberg said.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, raises her pitch noticeably when trying to draw a response from her crowd. Also, she bobs her head and she “has a way with her eyeballs to signal a kind of exclamation point,” Nunberg explained.

But, he added, Clinton is much better in smaller settings, like debates, where the candidates are improvising. She goes straight to the answer, while Obama often starts his sentences one way, and restarts them with different structure.

Nunberg suggested that much of the excitement Obama has been able to generate in large gatherings has had to do with voters attending his events with the idea that he will deliver excitement.

“If you come with the idea or hope of being engaged, or sufficient numbers of people come with the hope of being engaged, it is engaging,” he said.

Liberman said, “There’s no silver bullet. I don’t think the answer is something so superficial as sentence structure, intonation, that kind of stuff. You couldn’t say if you adapted his style then you would be successful.

“I wish I could say otherwise, because then I could go into business as a political consultant.”

What Makes Obama a Good Speaker?