Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Michelle Obama 1, teleprompter 0

Would-be speakers and those who train them have two weeks of great "practice" ahead, watching the two U.S. political conventions. The conventions aren't typical venues, by any means--more a public-speaking hothouse. There's a behind-the-scenes shop of speechwriters and trainers working with each person or group that steps forward to speak. Staying on time--and more importantly, on message--means that each speaker is given a speech written for them, and the use of teleprompters and other technology helps keep the show on schedule, if stilted. This morning's analyses are focused on Michelle Obama, once a reluctant campaigner by some accounts, now seen as a speaking powerhouse by some observers. Here's the view of National Public Radio's Ron Elving. He wasn't thrilled by the overdose of message he heard in her speech, but gave her high marks for delivery:

...we heard a litany of Americanisms, the catalog of Kodak moments and Norman Rockwell memories from Michelle Obama....there was so much of it, woven into practically every sentence she spoke, that one senses a return to similar themes in subsequent nights.

The performance was stunning inside the hall. The tall and striking woman made everyone forget she is not a professional speechmaker herself (although she is a Harvard-trained lawyer). She was direct, she was emotional and she was thoroughly in command. You had to wonder what kind of orators these two parents might be raising.

The blog of the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson agreed that "She owned the Democratic National Convention with a performance that was poised, purposeful and proud." He writes about how some see Michelle Obama's confidence as a negative, calling her "mean," and surprisingly, mulls that as a generational or racial bias there--but didn't think of it as a gender issue. (I've trained plenty of women who hesitate to put themselves "forward" in speaking situations due to just such a backlash.)

Aside from the typical factors--audiences want to like potential First Ladies--I think Michelle Obama succeeded on night one of this convention for an apparently unusual skill among the evening's speakers: The ability to avoid getting glued to the teleprompter, looking like a deer in headlights, frozen and unable to gesture with hands or facial expression. As I watched the evening's lineup (with exceptions like Ted Kennedy), I saw speaker after speaker get through remarks without a variance from the script--nor any in expression, vocal tone or gesture.

Obama, in contrast, managed to sound conversational, relaxed and still in command of her abilities to look around, smile, shrug her shoulders, and gesture. I realized that speakers have a great opportunity this week and next to learn how to avoid the teleprompter version of "lectern lock," a common issue in which nervous speakers grab the lectern and never let go. The teleprompter version involves locking your eyes on the machine, and forgetting to move the rest of you. Note that Obama kept her arms in the perfect position both to gesture and to avoid lectern lock, bent at the elbow and ready to move in any direction. It's a basic speaker trick that manages to make the speaker look relaxed, ready and genuine...and a speaking approach that works far better than the old-school stemwinder thumping stump speeches you'll hear this week.

Go here to see video from the campaign about Michelle Obama, and here to see speeches on video. (Photo from the Barack Obama campaign photostream on Flickr.)