In defense of Professor Obama's speaking style

August 17, 2012

As the presidential campaign builds in momentum, a number of friends and acquaintances have commented to me about their discomfort with Mr. Obama’s podium presence and his skills as a public speaker. These critics, who by the way are mostly Illinois Democrats, are quick to point out that they are not suggesting that Mr. Obama is clumsy, inarticulate or lacks polish. Rather, they accuse him of being too polished, too prepared and too professional in this speaking style. As someone who makes a living as a public speaker, allow me to translate. These critics are in effect accusing Mr. Obama of being too logical, too boring, too professorial!

So yes, Mr. Obama is well prepared in his public presentations. Yes, he is logical. And yes, his manner is deliberate and carefully paced. It is also true that his delivery usually lacks evangelical fervor or a certain locker room “pep talk” excitement.

But why is this a problem? Mr. Obama is neither a minister nor a coach. His background and training is as a lawyer and a professor. And as both a politician and the president, he is aware of Abraham Lincoln’s admonition that public figures must use and choose their words carefully. Whether you agree with Mr. Obama’s various political positions or not, although his presentations are rarely riveting or rousing, they are well-reasoned and understandable. 

I find it especially ironic that some of my fellow citizens of Illinois feel that Mr. Obama is a failed rhetorician — given the history of politicians and public speakers in this state. Lincoln’s words may be memorable, but according to most historians he had a “reedy tenor voice” and a “shrill monotone style of speaking.”  And then there were the two Adlais: Adlai Stevenson II, governor of Illinois, Adlai Stevenson III, senator of Illinois. Both men were intelligent, thoughtful, always omni-prepared and could put a crowd to sleep in less than five minutes! Let’s also not forget “Mr. Bowtie” — Senator Paul Simon — who was criticized for his ponderous professorial speaking style even though he never went to college. And last, but my no means least, there is Governor Richard Ogilvie, who seemed to be simultaneously uncomfortable and unclear every time he stepped in front of a microphone.

For me, the bottom line is this: What do we really want from our politicians, good words or a well delivered speech?  I would like a bit of both, but if have to choose, I vote for content over delivery.    

Al Gini is a Professor of Business Ethics and Chair of the Management Department in the Quinlan School of Business at Loyola University Chicago.