My Conversation with Barack Obama about Speaking

Barack Obama James Taylor

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Every generation has their great orators. The 1940’s gave us Churchill, the 60’s JFK and Dr King and arguably President Reagan in the 1980’s. Perhaps the greatest orator and public speaker of today is former US President Barack Obama. Last week I had the opportunity to meet and speak with him and ask him what advice he would give on how to be a great speaker.

While I don’t want to go into too much detail about our private conversation he did impress upon me the importance of using humor when we speak. Indeed later that evening I watched and listened as he put what he said into practice when he gave an inspiring 60 minute talk to an audience of business executives, politicians, authors, musicians and entrepreneurs. The topic he spoke on was a serious one; the changing nature of work, the environment and migration. Like any great speaker you could sense the speech structure and scaffolding he was building his ideas on. It was a speech light on statistics but heavy on rhetoric and vision. He also made full use of dynamics in the tone, pacing and story arc of his speech.

However it was his use of humor and space that makes him not just a good speaker but a great speaker. At the beginning of his talk he broke the ice and endered himself with the audience by praising their country and its people. Throughout his speech he would use a few well-rehearsed humorous lines to counterbalance what would have been an otherwise heavy and difficult topic. However it was at the end during the Q&A session with Sir Tom Hunter where he opened up and you recognized that someone who was once the most powerful man on earth was also vulnerable, had his good days and bad, and like us all, tried to make the best decisions on often incomplete information.

Although President Obama impressed upon me, in both our private conversation and when he was up on stage, the power of humor, it was his use of space and pauses that was my #1 takeaway. During his speech his paused often to both add power to what he had just said and also to allow the audience to process what he was saying. It reminded me of that Miles Davis quote where he said “It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t.” By using the dramatic pause it made the audience do a little bit of work by filling in the blanks so that you felt like you had arrived at the meaning of a story without him actually having to say it.

If my friend and keynote speaker Fredrik Haren was sitting in the audience with me he would have described Obama’s inner theme as being ‘change’. Change is what he spoke about during his Presidential elections and change is what he talks about today, albeit in relation to automation, artificial intelligence, machine learning and the future of work.

Finally in President Obama’s talk I heard echoes of the speech structures of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. He would begin by finding something all of the audience agreed on, next he would present them with a challenge, and then end with a motivational call to action and rallying call which hopefully made the listener feel as if some transformation had occurred in them.

As a keynote speaker myself I love studying what other speakers do. As speakers our words have power. They really do have the ability to change and transform. Use them wisely. And find ways to add more humor and space to your speeches. If you’d like to learn how to become a better speaker then check out the upcoming International Speakers Summit.

Barack Obama James Taylor

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In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • Meeting former President Barack Obama
  • How to be a great speaker
  • Speech structure
  • Sir Tom Hunter
  • Hunter Foundation
  • Miles Davis
  • Pauses and Pacing
  • Change – Inner Theme
  • Dr Martin Luther King Jr

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