One has the appeal of a rock star and draws tens of thousands of fired-up fans to big arena rallies, giving speeches that have become instant classics and are compared to those of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and John F. Kennedy. The other is a confident debater who can answer just about any question tossed at him and has a knack for connecting with ordinary voters on his whistle-stop tours around the country.
The communication styles of U.S. Senators Barack Obama and John McCain are worlds apart, and the media has been quick to crown Obama, with his ability to mesmerize crowds with inspirational speeches, the superior communicator. But the verdict is still out on whose oratory skills will lead all the way to the White House when American voters elect the country’s 44th president in November. One thing is certain – until Election Day, the two candidates’ every move will be analyzed, and their message, choice of words, body language and cadence scrutinized. Here’s a look at what we can learn from comparing the contenders’ communication styles.
Obama, the Democratic senator from Illinois, early on opted for the overarching themes of “change” and “hope,” and that turned out to be an ingenious move. “These are two very broad, or what some would call vague, messages, but they clearly resonated with a large swath of the electorate,” says Ruth Sherman, a communication coach in Connecticut who blogged about the primary season for FastCompany.com. Initially criticized for lacking substance, Obama later added more details to his speeches.
McCain, on the other hand, started out focusing on what is considered his specialty – national security – betting that the Iraq war would be the defining issue of this election. The Arizona Republican has also emphasized his opposition to so-called “pork-barrel” programs, or wasteful government spending. “He’s trying to project reliability, competence, personal steadiness and that he’s a good manager, and he seems to be quite successful in communicating that,” says Bob Katz, an author and entrepreneur in the speaking industry.
One of Obama’s strengths is his conversational style, which he successfully molds to fit the audience. When speaking to college students, for example, Obama often uses slang and casual phrases. He also tends to use a lot of inclusive words, and that makes people respond positively.
“Obama uses a lot of words like you, us, our troops, and all of us, and that makes people identify with him,” says Kathleen K. Kendall, a research professor in the University of Maryland’s department of communication.
McCain uses more traditional language that’s less vivid and more formal than Obama’s. “You can tell he’s been influenced by his 20-plus years in the Senate. His language doesn’t have the fresh, impromptu quality of Obama’s, and it’s almost clichéd in its formality,” says Kendall. “McCain’s language is more general and he doesn’t have any slogans that he repeats. He’s not as strong in terms of being memorable.”
She adds, “Obama often quotes the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as President John F. Kennedy. Both were eloquent speakers, and these quotes add to Obama’s own eloquence.”
The way Obama delivers a prepared speech is the reason communication experts are raving about him. “You get the feeling from Obama that he could read a recipe to you and you would feel inspired,” says Sherman, the communication coach. Or in the words of Republican media consultant Alex Castellanos on CNN’s The Situation Room: “He is the guy who can stand on top of the mountain top and say, ‘We’re going to go over here.’ And he lifts people that way.”
So what’s Obama’s secret? For starters, he’s mastered the teleprompter to the point where it takes a trained eye to realize he’s reading off a screen. Secondly, he effectively uses pauses to give people a chance to digest his message, applaud and sometimes passionately chant one of his slogans.
“That allows [the audience] to connect with him emotionally,” says Sherman. “Everybody feels like they’re very much a part of him. It’s masterful.”
His energy and friendly appearance also help explain why he’s been able to captivate followers by the thousands.
To say that McCain lacks many of Obama’s qualities when he delivers scripted speeches is an understatement. He’s notably uncomfortable, sounds like he’s reading the lines from a script, smiles at awkward times and doesn’t pause to let the audience applaud.
“Rallies are not his thing. He doesn’t seem to know where one sentence ends and another begins,” says Sherman.
Even Republican strategists admit speeches are not McCain’s strongest venue – but debates are a different story. While Obama sometimes fumbles when he doesn’t have a teleprompter or the choice of questions and topics, McCain’s longtime service in the Senate has made him a confident debater who is fluent on many of the issues.
McCain’s experience also helps him at town-hall meetings and in question-and-answer sessions, where his style is more conversational than it is from behind a lectern.
“He can answer just about anything, even hostile questions,” says Kendall. “He actually encourages questions from people who disagree with him and that’s courageous, since questions are always a potential threat. He knows how to deal with them.”
Partly because of the big age difference – Obama is 46 and McCain is 72 – Obama has the upper hand when it comes to voice. Not only is his voice more youthful and energetic, Obama also knows how to use it, which is crucial on the campaign trail. In contrast, McCain’s voice is thin and doesn’t project very well.
“Obama has a more enthusiastic voice and has more vocal variety, which is so important in keeping the attention of the audience,” says Kendall. “If you don’t provide variety, the audience will tune out. Obama’s pitch, tone and volume are varied, and those are all very important.”
Going on whistle-stop tours through small-town America and showing off your interpersonal communication skills is mandatory for anyone vying to become President of the United States. Whereas McCain seems comfortable making small talk with truck-stop owners and answering off-the-cuff questions from factory workers, Obama often looks ill at ease when he has to get off the campaign bus on his stump tours.
Several of these situations have come back to haunt Obama, including his abysmal performance in a Pennsylvania bowling alley, and his tendency to reject food offered to him on the road by well-meaning constituents. “He’s not comfortable in these settings and it’s hurting him with middle-class voters,” says Sherman. “It communicates a lack of understanding of how to connect with people on the ground, and it’s something he must overcome. It’s his biggest weakness.”
Looking presidential is one thing – looking too sophisticated another. The fact that Obama, in Sherman’s words, “doesn’t look comfortable when he doesn’t have a tie on” could work in McCain’s favor. McCain is older, heavier and doesn’t dress in fancy suits like Obama. “For certain constituencies a more casual appearance communicates that ‘this guy knows what my life is like, he knows how hard it is to fill up my pick-up truck,’” says Sherman. “It doesn’t matter whether [McCain] actually does, what matters is what he shows people.”
Obama’s upscale appearance may turn off some voters, but his body language is as smooth as his speeches. He moves with grace and has even showed off some dance moves on the campaign trail, sending the message that he’s uninhibited and youthful.
“He seems really comfortable in his own skin, even when he puts his hands in his pockets, which is usually a no-no,” says Sherman. She only has one complaint: “Obama points too much. He’s either pointing with one hand or the other. His hands should be open and variably expressive when he’s speaking.”
McCain’s ability to communicate through body language is limited due to injuries he sustained as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He walks slowly and can’t move his upper arms very well, and Sherman suspects a lot of voters may not realize why. “I think it’s going to hurt McCain. Somebody will have to explain it.”
So does a person’s communication skills really tell us anything about his ability to lead the country? Yes and no, according to Katz. In a March 24 op-ed piece in Newsday, Katz argued that the spoken word remains the best opportunity voters have to get to know the candidates:
“The notion of the ‘good talker’ has long vexed us. Eloquent and slick are often perceived as two sides of the same coin, and our history contains as many examples of being bamboozled by inspiring charlatans as being inspired by bona fide visionaries. Yet, most of us believe there’s a correlation, and possibly a very strong one, between verbal skill and intellectual aptitude.”
But since very few people will ever get a chance to see the candidates in situations that aren’t carefully staged and scripted by their campaign staffs, voters need to start thinking about the candidates’ speaking styles on a deeper level, advises Katz. Rather than overplaying a person’s ability to recite prepared lines, we should ask ourselves who is the better communicator overall, who has the most compelling message and who manages to keep the facts straight.
And it’s the rare occasions when the candidates aren’t in complete control that may tell us the most about them.
“Let’s look at the press conferences and some of the really confrontational debates,” Katz says. “Let’s see how they respond to questions. My sense is that [McCain and Obama] are both quite capable that way.”
Editor’s Note: This article is presented for nonpartisan educational purposes; the views expressed are not endorsed by Toastmasters International.
Linda McGurk is a communications specialist and freelance writer based in Indiana. Reach her at www.mcgurkmedia.com .