What Leaders Can Learn from Obama's Speech to His Campaign

Next time you need to deliver an important message to your staff, borrow a few of the communication skills the President demonstrates in this short speech.
President and Founder, Clarion Enterprises Ltd.
November 19, 2012

The ability to speak in a way that creates an emotional bridge is one of the most admired qualities of leadership. A person who has mastered this is said to speak in "the leader's voice." The leader's voice is captivating: it makes the audience want to lean in to listen to every word that person has to say. What does it take to be that voice in the room?

Recently, we saw a good example of this in the brief, five-minute speech that President Obama delivered to his campaign staff the day after the election. The purpose of the speech was to thank the campaign workers for their efforts in helping the President win re-election. Rather than the perfunctory "I couldn't have done it without you," or "you were a great asset to winning the campaign," Obama delivered a thank you speech that was evidently straight from the heart. So what made this speech an exemplary piece of leadership communication?

Authenticity, Humility and Optimism

First, there were three enduring leadership qualities that came through loud and clear: authenticity, humility and optimism.

When he talks about his early days as a community organizer and his desire to make a difference, Obama's authenticity shines: "I didn’t really know how to do it. . . a group of churches were willing to hire me. . . and I didn’t know at all what I was doing." Authentic, personal communication is vital for any leader who seeks to connect with his constituents.

Humility is a very attractive trait in a leader. It is the antithesis of hubris, the excessive, arrogant pride which often leads to the derailment of some corporate heroes. Mark W. Merril said: "Humility does not mean you think less of yourself. It just means you think more of others." That's precisely what Obama illustrates in his speech. He tells his audience: "You are so much better than I was. In so many ways, you’re smarter, and you’re better organized, and you're more effective." He goes further by stating that "the work that I did in those communities changed me much more than I changed the communities."

Leaders are purveyors of hope. They can see around the corner and instill in people the hope and belief that tomorrow is better than today. That's precisely what Obama does several times in his short speech. He says: "I’m just looking around the room and I’m thinking wherever you guys end up, you’re just gonna do great things." He expresses an optimistic view of the future that awaits his staff long after their work as his campaign staff has ended: "And whatever good we do over the next four years will pale in comparison to what you guys end up accomplishing for years and years to come."

Speak on Three Channels

In Voice Lessons: Applying Science to the Art of Leadership Communication, Ron Crossland writes that the most effective communicators use three channels to boost the impact of their communication: the factual, emotional and symbolic. Too often, leaders speak only on the factual channel, but facts alone rarely inspire. It is the emotional and symbolic channel that powers a leader's communication and helps him or her convey important leadership messages. Obama's speech is a particularly good example of a leader who is gifted in using the emotional channel, in an authentic manner.

Communicating on the emotional channel is a two-part process: first, a leader needs to speak about how he feels about his topic. We admire those who are cool under fire, but we don't connect with a leader who is dead cold. A poker face is good for poker, not for inspiring others. The emotional channel dominates Obama's speech to his staff. He expresses his own emotions which center around confidence and admiration for his staff, and genuine gratitude for their efforts and loyalty: "I am absolutely confident that you are going to do just amazing things in your lives." 

The second part of the emotional channel is your constituents' emotions. It is having the empathy to understand and recognize the emotions of others in the room. On that score, Obama refers to their hard work and shows that he genuinely understands who they are, what they have done, ("you all are just remarkable people") and most important, what they will accomplish in the future: "Your journey is just beginning...You're just starting."

The symbolic channel taps into the power of symbols (or metaphors) and storytelling. Here too, Obama's speech fits Ron Crossland's framework nicely. Obama uses several metaphors: He refers to the indomitable spirit of people as "the grit . . . of ordinary people." He also borrows a metaphor from Robert Kennedy when he refers to the "ripples of hope that come out when you throw a stone in a lake." He also honors his audience by making them the wellspring for his own hope and fortitude. He refers to them as "the source of my strength and my inspiration." He tells them that they had an uplifting effect on him as he grappled with difficulties: "You’ve lifted me up, each and every step of the way." 

Tell a Story

Storytelling, a major component of the symbolic channel, is a powerful leadership tool. This is echoed by Terry Pearce, in The Mastery of Speaking as a Leader. Pearce provides three rules for powerful leadership communication: speak on topics you really care about, incorporate personal experiences that have formed the basis for your beliefs, and structure your speech as a story. One could say that Obama's entire speech is a personal story about his dream to make a difference—starting from his efforts as a 25-year old community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, during the Ronald Reagan era, to where he is now: "I felt that the work that I had done, in running for office, had come full circle ... because what you guys have done ... means that the work that I’m doing is important."

Invoke History

Finally, throughout his speech there is a sense of history: "What you guys have accomplished will go on in the annals of history, and people will read about it, and they’ll marvel about it." We can clearly follow the thread of this story line in Obama's speech. He adds meaning to their work and this is another requisite for a successful leadership communication: leaders need to connect the dots for people and help them see the greater purpose for their work.

It is important for leaders to speak in a way that connects with people, a way that engenders loyalty and commitment. Authentic, personal experiences, empathy, a hopeful vision, stories and metaphors are powerful weapons in a leader's arsenal. They are the megaphone for the leader's voice.

Photo: Getty Images