Thinking Out Loud

President Obama’s Communication Style

We have many opportunities to observe the communication styles of public figures and draw conclusions about them from what we observe. Because these individuals present themselves in public forums, however, we see them only in a limited context. They may all appear to be very outgoing, for example, but that is likely not true.

President Obama is known for his exceptional ability to give a speech, an ability well accepted even by his critics. He has been interviewed on television many times, so we get to see him in those circumstances as well as in press conferences and other settings. Because of these varied opportunities, we may think we know him and draw conclusions about him as a person.

As one who is constantly observing communication and trying to understand the relationship between content and process, I’ve become intrigued by the comments of pundits about Mr. Obama’s presentation of himself—his public communication style. A general agreement has Mr. Obama cool and level headed, thinking issues through carefully and not reacting spontaneously. A lack of passion, however, is something for which he is often criticized.

I frequently hear and read commentary questioning the President’s enthusiasm, intensity, and passion. Frankly, I am taken aback. To me, the President’s passion for many things is strong. His resolve is palpable and he is often very pointed in his remarks, leaving no doubt where he stands. Therefore, I have struggled with the difference in the assessment from the pundits versus my own.

So here’s my analysis.

It’s often assumed that politicians need to be interpreted by commentators, so the audience can understand what politicians really mean by what they say. I’ve watched many news people trip over themselves after a presidential speech trying to get at what was meant. With Mr. Obama it isn’t necessary to play the let’s-figure-out-what-he-really-meant game. He literally says what he means.

My second point has to do with our confusion about the integrity of politicians. We generally accept that politicians have questionable integrity. We allow them to fudge numbers and over or understate policy positions. As long as they stay within certain accepted bounds, however, we cut them some slack. President Obama is uncomfortable with that norm. He constantly strives to maintain integrity, so he chooses his words carefully to say what he really means. This contrasts with the style of most politicians, which is to say what they believe we want to hear so we will like and support them. We sense the difference, but it is hard to define concretely. This confusion leaves us uneasy.

Finally, we struggle to identify the President’s passion because his affect is not expressed in typical political style caricature. His affect is congruent with his nature, so the fluctuations are not an act but real expressions of his feelings. Unfortunately, we are accustomed to very stylized affect and word choice in our politicians. The President doesn’t do this.

President Obama acts like a normal human being. It’s pretty simple, but politicians don’t usually do that. They develop personas to meet public expectations. Their affect is part of their persona and fits what we have come to expect. So when the President has that look on his face—with precise words to say how utterly important something is, how committed he is to seeing it through, and why it matters in the larger scheme of things—we get confused. He is talking like a real person to us and treating us like real people, too. I do not mean this sarcastically, but it is novel.

This is not a political statement and has nothing to do with my agreement or disagreement with the President’s policies or actions. Although I’ve said he acts like a normal human being, I don’t mean to downgrade any of his exceptional qualities. He has many and these are well known. Getting back to his communication style (at least his public style), he actually exhibits a great deal of balance and strength in his use of words, affect, logic, empathy, reflection, imagery, and body language. This balance, along with his fine mind and sense of passion, allows him to be an exceptionally effective communicator.

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