Episode 33 – Obama and the Gentle Art of Persuasion

President Obama

President Obama, Master Speaker

Welcome Friends, Neighbors and people everywhere. This is your host, Michael Nunes.

Welcome to the Thirty-Third episode of my podcast, The Power of Three. I want to help show you how harnessing the Power of Three can lead to a more fulfilling life, a life that celebrates our differences and our similarities, and accepts that we are part of the great web of life.

In this episode, I will discuss the gentle, and sometimes not so gentle art of persuasion. Persuasion is key to what we do as public speakers. It is key to almost every part of our lives as social animals. From our first cry as a newborn child we practice the art of persuasion. That first cry is a way for the infant to manipulate people into providing what the infant needs. Almost every mammal does it. Science has found that mammals react instinctively to the cries of infants from other species. This leads cats to nurse rats, dogs nursing squirrels or apes nursing cats.

Persuasion is central to our social lives. Some of us are better than others, sometimes through innate ability. Most often, it is a skill that is studied and develops throughout life. Every piece of advertising that we encounter attempts to persuade us to purchase something. Some politicians are quite adept at persuasion.

I am currently reading the book, “Say it like Obama” by Shel Leanne. The subtitle of the book is “The power of speaking with purpose and vision”. Regardless of your personal opinion about Obama, it is not difficult to acknowledge that he was a powerful speaker. For a man of color in a racially ambiguous world to have gathered so many followers in so short a time is little short of miraculous. He traveled the country and spoke to crowds not seen for decades. People treated him like a rock star. Even traveling to nations like Germany, he encountered enormous crowds.

How did he manage? Why were so many people swayed by his message? The reasons are not simple, but they can be reduced to a number of important points. Any speaker can use these principles to become more authoritative and believable. I won’t cover every point because persuasion, like so many aspects of character, is complex. Let’s look at a few covered in the book and begin to see how Obama creates such influence.

The first principle of persuasion is confidence. When you first encounter Obama, you see him stride onto a stage, smiling, hand extended. His demeanor is confident, fully in control. He turns and faces the crowd with his shoulders square. He smiles and waves as though greeting long lost friends. Those simple gestures immediately create expectation in his audience. He Rplaces his hands on the podium, not in a death grip, but demonstrating control. Without having spoken a single word he exudes authority. People instinctively look for a leader in any social situation. People size one another up and decide very quickly on a leader. The President provides that effortlessly.

The President is fortunate to have a voice that conveys power and authority. We cannot all have his rich baritone voice. The President uses every emotion he can muster. He falls silent when it is necessary. He booms out a message and lets it sink in. Every word and gesture shows emotion. His voice varies constantly to produce the effect he desires. In that way, he connects with his audience. The audience is carried along by his emotions, and by his meaningful gestures. The timber of his voice and his gestures work together in harmony. That careful choreographing between body language, gesture and emotion produces the power that we see in his speaking.

There are ways to deepen your voice, or to train your voice to project further into your audience. Varying your tone, tempo and timbre are skills that you can learn and will improve your speaking. These are all techniques that you can use to increase your impact on your audience.

These opening gambits are Obama’s first attempts to influence his audience. Before he utters a word he has imposed his authority on his audience.

The first words he utters are always used to find common ground with his audience. He searches not for arguments or logic, but for the elements that demonstrate how similar he is to his audience. He talks about the common struggles that he shares with his audience. He tells them about his single mother battling to raise a child. He reminds them of being left by his father at a tender age. He talks about his father who grew up herding sheep and living in a hut in Africa. In this way he establishes his background and shows that he is not so different to them.

Obama seldom talks about the things that divide people, or that drive people apart. He always speaks the language of community and of common purpose. His values are the values of the people before him. He speaks about his faith and his church. Those first few paragraphs always create a unity between the audience and the speaker. This is a technique that speakers can use to good effect. Instead of finding the things that keep us apart, find the things that bring us together.

When facing an audience, the way to let them bond with you is to talk about what we have in common. This makes you less of a threat. You are no longer a complete stranger because you have common bonds.

Using Obama’s techniques, you have established authority and credibility and a common bond with your audience. If you don’t have these pieces in place, it becomes a lot harder to convince your audience. Once they are in place, a speaker is in a far stronger position to convince his audience. If you have ever bought a car from a dealer, they use the same techniques. They will ask about family, or where you are from, even where you went to school. It is difficult to say no to someone with whom you share a bond. This does not mean that politicians are used car salesmen, just that they use some of the same techniques. The same techniques can be used in teams, in seminars, or even personal relationships.

Like Obama, if you want to persuade your audience, don’t tiptoe onto the stage timidly. Stride on as though you are in charge. Smile at the audience. Stretch out your hand with an open palm as though welcoming them. When you speak, project your voice and speak with conviction. You are in charge of the stage. Yet, you have common purpose with your audience. You are there because you care about every single one of them. If you present yourself as in any way superior to your audience, they will notice and you will lose them. Treat them as friends, as people important to you and you will persuade far more easily.

I was surprised when I read this book. I was not expecting much when I started. I visited my local public library looking for a few books on professional public speaking. I found very little. I picked up this book and borrowed it with few expectations. I am pleasantly surprised. I have managed to get more from “Say it Like Obama” than I have from a number of other books on public speaking. I believe it really is worth reading. I will be adding it to my bookshelf.

I will talk a lot more about the power of persuasion as a speaker. The three factors that I find important, life, liberty and equality are best explored through the power of persuasion. I have many opinions that I like to talk about. Without being able to persuade you, my audience, those opinions are of little value to you. I believe that persuading people is far more effective than cajoling, insulting or patronizing. We need to bring civility back to our political discourse. I will continue to explore this in future episodes.

I encourage you to continue to enhance your life with the Power of Three and search for the best possible life to live.

Until next time, go well my friends.

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