Friday, January 23, 2009

Nonverbal Obama: Aside From His Words

I figured many Malaysians (especially politicians, would-be and long-suffering ones) would be interested in William A. Gentry's essay in Businessweek on the body language that President Obama conveyed when he was delivering his Inaugural Address. So here it is in full:

President Barack Obama's inaugural address today offered his first official opportunity to set the tone and share his vision for his fledgling Administration. In addressing fellow Americans for the first time as President—against the backdrop of a severe recession marked by massive layoffs, foreclosures, and numerous other problems—it was critical for Obama to inspire hope and project confidence.

The words he used were essential to his message. But his nonverbal behaviors were just as important, if not more so, in getting his message across. Research shows nonverbal communication conveys as much as 93% of the emotional meaning behind what is said. People respond strongly to what they see, or to the tone of voice that is used to speak the words they hear. Everything from dress, the amount of physical space between the speaker and audience, hand gestures, posture, facial expression, and tone of voice can make or break a leader's message. With Obama on center stage, here is what I, a researcher and commentator on leadership and nonverbal communication, observed watching his inaugural address on television.

Leaders in general will use different nonverbal behaviors and actions when addressing a crowd or making a speech than they would in a one-on-one situation. For example, Obama made good use of eye contact with individuals during his debates with John McCain in the fall. During the beginning of his address today, however, he reached out to a large audience by talking to the extreme left and extreme right of the crowds and not focusing on smaller sections or individuals. It seemed he was concentrating more on trying to connect deeply with the many millions listening and watching on the national mall than with those viewing on television.


Though it is indeed a difficult task to engage millions of people spanning a lot of space and the temptation to play for those many millions watching on television screens the world over must have been great, Obama was able to hold the attention of those watching in person. His intelligent use of eye contact, constantly spanning the entire crowd rather than looking just in one particular place or speaking mostly to those nearest him, made him appear entirely aware of the enormity of the crowd that was intently listening to his words and vision.

I also noticed Obama's use of hand gestures. Research has shown that hand gestures are used more than smiles to address a large crowd because they are more visible. Normally, hand gestures are used to convey power and dominance. Obama used his hand gestures infrequently, mainly keeping them inside his body line, to emphasize points or key words.

Instead of relying on hand gestures, Obama chose tone of voice as his most evocative and powerful nonverbal behavior. He altered it frequently to match his message. The taking of the oath of office was not his strongest moment. Obama started making his declaration too soon, and there were some awkward moments of confusion between him and Chief Justice Roberts during the rest of the swearing-in. However, Obama's confident tone during his inaugural speech helped him recover his air of command and impart strong meaning to his words.


In addition, he conveyed appropriate gravity when talking about all the problems and crises the nation faces, from a weak economy and costly health care to failing schools and poor energy policies. And his tone of voice became louder and his delivery more confident and steadfast when he declared that these problems and challenges will be met. In stark contrast, his tone became more quiet and inviting as he pledged to work closely with countries around the world.

I was also struck by Obama's facial expressions, or lack thereof. He did not smile excessively during his inaugural address, which appropriately and respectfully reflected the serious times in which we live. He conveyed a powerful sense of optimism and a compelling vision of a brighter future more through his tone of voice than any other nonverbal behavior. His words were, as usual, eloquent. His tone of voice especially drove those words to those in person in Washington and to people like me, watching on television or on the Internet around the world.

Obama's inaugural address was honest, motivational, and inspirational, which a speech by a leader at such a critical point of time needs to be. I felt that the tone of his first Presidential address to the people of the United States was serious yet optimistic, as befits the challenges ahead. When addressing followers for the first time, especially when bad news and distress are top of mind for those to whom he is speaking, a leader needs to be authentic, visionary, inspirational, and charismatic.

Through Obama's nonverbal communication, he conveyed to people who listened to and viewed his speech that he understands the seriousness of the crises and challenges ahead, the importance of reaching out to both allies and enemies, and that he is confident but not arrogant about his ability to lead.


mamasita said...

Many people are pouring so many praises on him.Personally, I think hes going to be the best black puppet ever for a commitee of powerful white puppet masters.
I just think this guy is the biggest tin kosong in history. He knows how to talk saja.He knows how to obey orders saja.Hes a coward to take matters into his own hands.
My impression of him is insignificant.I hope I am very wrong.

de minimis said...


That is a very interesting observation. I have an earlier post where I had described him as a "Manchurian candidate". One clue is his proposal to re-appoint William Gates as a carry-over from Bush, as Secretary of Defense.

I also hope that I'm wrong about Obama. He seems decent. But the proof of the pudding is when you eat it. I think the whole world is giving him 100 days probation.

Having said all can't deny that he's a very polished speaker. That is something all aspiring public persons should try to learn from.

Estrelita Soliano Grosse said...

Verbal or non-verbal, he's going to disappoint all his critics!


de minimis said...

Hi Lita

I hope so. But he's got his hands full.

1. The Gaza situation is a quagmire. Obama is hoping that George Mitchell can pull a rabbit out of the hat like Mitchell did with the Irish Good Friday Accord over a decade ago. But the Palestinian issue is a highly complex one.

2. Withdrawal from Iraq. How does the U.S. extricate itself from Iraq without leaving a breeding ground for future enemies? How will it leave until Iraq has a strong military and law enforcement structure? Without these conditions being met, there will be chaos in Iraq.

3. The economy.

I've said enough. But I do hope Obama can facilitate positive changes.

Anonymous said...
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Estrelita Soliano Grosse said...

Yes, it's true that there are many things on his plate! However, better him than some other incompetent, unthinking, uncaring, greedy and ambitious person.

I have hope! ;)

de minimis said...

Mr P

No-lah. Your assessment of Mamasita is way off-base.


I share your sentiments.

walla said...

Mamasita is not a racist. She's a fine and outstanding lady. Meet her just once and you will be proud again to be a Malaysian.

de minimis said...

hi walla

You and I can vouch for mamasita. Mr P is just being naughty and baiting.

Let's just end this here. No need for anyone else to deal with this.

I'm not going to permit any more responses to Mr P's obviously insensitive, unfair and unkind remarks about someone he obviously doesn't know. And those of us who knows feels nauseous at such a remark.

So, this stops NOW..

Anonymous said...

In the wake of Obama mania, there are many unworthy people who are jumping on the bandwagon of “change”. These people who do not understand what the word “change” is all about are rushing out with their own versions of change. We have seen people such as Najib, Muhiddin and other politicians from the BN fraternity sprouting out saccharine, syrupy and wordy tomes of an idea that is so foreign to them. To them it only fashionable to be associate with something that is spreading like raging fire lest they might miss out on it.
In fact, even before Obama came out with his iconic clarion call for change the people of Bolehland has preempted the corrupt leaders of BN with their demonstration for change. The 2008 tsunami, the Pematang Puah and Kuala Trengganu buy-elections have sent strong signals from the people to these pretenders of change but it seems they have not heeded the warnings. They become more arrogant and drunk with power. Their usual swan song of development, ketuanan Melayu and “be grateful” lyrics have all become so stale and worn-out that the people have become blasé and rejected it wholesale.
Do these clowns understand that whether they change or not, their time are over? Now the people’s roar for change will bury them for good, whether they like it or not.

Anonymous said...

Sorry all, apologize for my earlier posting.
I regret it sincerely and my apologies to Mamasita.