Obama – speaking flaws.

President Obama is an interesting study for me. Since he first started campaigning for the US presidency, he has been hailed by nearly everyone as a great orator; yet his speaking is flawed in so many areas! For instance, his enunciation is terrible. A reader who happens to be a past trainee has suggested I do a critique of his acceptance speech after the recent election; and that is firmly on my to-do list. Meanwhile here, from the Auraclenewsletter of March 2011, is an observation on how basic errors took the shine off an important, high-profile speech.

On 1 February, 2011, President Obama spoke at The White House about the (then) political turmoil in Egypt. Watching it, I was thinking what a copybook example he was giving us on how not to enunciate. Syllables were going AWOL all over the place. [If you want to know my teaching on enunciation, my book The Face & Tripod covered it briefly and my later booklet Every Word Heard focused specifically on it.]

And then he hit us with this triad,

An orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now.”

As triads go it’s actually a rather clunky example; but because it was a triad it achieved the desired effect – worldwide headlines.

In The Face & Tripod there’s a Chapter that deals with triads. In it I was principally concerned with using them covertly in order not to alienate the more cynical and sophisticated, triad conscious, members of the audience (because the business world is my niche and business audiences can be very cynical). And with my tongue firmly in my cheek I concluded the chapter with a tiny paragraph that was a veritable orgy of triads – four of them in just over two lines. And I have since found several readers who never even noticed – that’s covert for you!

But let me justify my use of the word ‘clunky’, to criticise Obama’s triad. If you are going to deploy an overt triad, at least make it elegant! Those who have attended my Master-classes are familiar with anaphora: a series of phrases or sentences whose beginnings are the same. Had Obama merely left off the two occasions he used the word ‘it’ we’d have been presented with a triad anaphora. Compare the two by saying them aloud.

His –

“An orderly transition

  • must be meaningful,
  • it must be peaceful, and
  • it must begin now.”

Mine –

“An orderly transition

  • must be meaningful,
  • must be peaceful, and
  • must begin now.”

By simply removing a tiny word I contend that the latter is smoother, more elegant and rhythmic. The former is smudgy and clumsy.  Clunky.

Am I splitting hairs?  Yes of course I am.  But when you are preparing an important speech you should consider the potential value of every fraction of every percent.

And yet, for all that, he got his headlines! There’s the ultimate lesson: triads excite interest – even when they’re clunky. So use them.

Perhaps while I’m about it I also ought to give an example that justifies my dismissal of Obama’s enunciation.  He has clearly worked very hard on portraying statesmanship: his body-language, from his scalp to his toes, screams authority. As part of that he has adopted a manner of speaking that seeks to defy contradiction. That manner causes him to drop heavily at the ends of phrases and sentences. In so doing he loses final syllables. There are dozens of examples: let me give you just one that repeats often. The word ‘people’ invariably comes out as ‘peep’.

It is perfectly possible to deliver that vocal authority without losing syllables: you just need to know how. Maybe someone will tell him – if he’ll listen. Heads of State really do need to get it right.

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