Obama’s Leadership Communication, 1995-2017: How Much Did He Improve?

Obama Then and Now

In honor of President Obama’s birthday this week, the QC team took a look back at his communication throughout his political career.

More than any president in recent memory, Obama used his years in the White House to cultivate a longstanding reputation as a strong public speaker. Obama’s impressive capabilities as a communicator were evident as we analyzed his speeches during his presidency. But we were curious just how far back his talents went. Had he always been such an effective speaker? To find out, we tracked down a speech he gave in 1995.

Obama had just announced his first Senate run and he was promoting his new book, Dreams from My FatherA Story of Race and Inheritance, at the Cambridge Public Library.

It was easy to see that characteristic charm as he spoke candidly about his childhood, his family, and race relations in the United States. But it was also obvious that the 34-year-old Obama wasn’t yet the polished speaker he is today.

To get an objective view of what had changed, we used our analytics platform to compare Obama’s 1995 speech at the Cambridge Public Library to his final presidential address in January.

From his Cambridge Speech to his Farewell Address, Obama’s Audience Perception Score Improved 159%

When we evaluate a spoken communication, we measure attributes of content and delivery such as clarity, trustworthiness, vocal rate, gestures, and posture. But then we go a step further, answering the question on everyone’s minds as they prepare for a presentation:

What will the audience think?

QC’s panel of 15 Ph.D.-level communication experts serves as a great proxy for an audience, acting as a personal focus group by offering feedback on how audiences perceive speakers, and providing specific recommendations on how speakers can improve their impact.

So as we looked back at Obama’s evolution as a speaker, we asked our panel to evaluate both his 1995 Cambridge speech and his 2017 presidential farewell.

Between 1995 and 2017, President Obama’s Audience Perception score rocketed from below average to the top 10 percent of global communicators.

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Obama’s best-in-class audience perception score was the primary driver behind an 86 percent improvement in his QC Score — that is, an overall assessment of the effectiveness of his communication based on content, delivery skills, and audience perception.

So what changed?

The Audience Perception score is based on analysis of 10 different characteristics, but we found two that stood out among the rest.

Authenticity: Obama Communicated 1.6x More Authentically in his Farewell Address than His 1995 Speech

In terms of communication science, authenticity refers to the sense that the president’s remarks were natural and not overly choreographed or prepared. Audiences crave authenticity from speakers because it indicates that they truly believe in their message. In a landscape where transparency is more valued (and yet harder to come by) than ever before, audiences are wary of manipulation and spin from inauthentic speakers.

Obama, however, has developed a knack for addressing an audience of thousands with the same genuine affect and tone he might use in a one-on-one conversation with a colleague.

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According to executive communication coach Briar Goldberg, Obama’s authenticity comes largely from repeated exposure to the spotlight. In 1995, when he was new to the public life, Obama was likely far less comfortable with a teleprompter or a script, and less at ease in front of an audience. Twenty-two years and hundreds of addresses later, his familiarity with the spotlight enables him to address the audience in an easier, more authentic manner than before. And this developed sense of comfort was evident in our analytics:

Obama’s lift in authenticity corresponded with a 78.8% increase in the effectiveness of his gestures and a 26.1% improvement in his posture.

According to Goldberg, the more we speak in public, the more we learn what feels natural and good — in terms of the words themselves, as well as in the vocal inflections, facial expressions, and gestures that really drive the message home. In fact, she says, the most experienced speakers’ remarks often feel the least prepared.

For speakers who don’t get up on stage as often as a president might, but who want to appear more authentic, Goldberg recommends giving yourself as much “fake exposure” as possible. That means rehearsing plenty of times, in different rooms, and in front of test audiences who can provide practice distractions. By creating that kind of exposure for yourself, you can mimic a seasoned speaker’s experience and improve your authenticity by making yourself comfortable behind the podium.

Expertise: Obama Demonstrated 3.2x More Expertise in His Farewell Address than His Cambridge Speech

Research suggests, and intuition supports, that audiences are more likely to trust and be persuaded by speakers who appear deeply knowledgeable and confident in discussing their subject matter.

Goldberg says that perceived expertise comes from a combination of confident posture, strong vocal delivery, and the ability to deliver a message in a clear, succinct way. An expert knows how to offer the right level of detail without being longwinded or indirect. The speaker will be standing up straight, gesturing naturally, and speaking in a clear, confident voice.

President Obama, with his authoritative posture and assured voice, has certainly learned how to demonstrate his expertise on stage.

Our analysis revealed more growth in Expertise than in any other communication metric, as he skyrocketed from the bottom quartile to the top 3 percent.

President Obama's Expertise.png

For speakers without Obama’s experience or status, Goldberg recommends displaying expertise by learning your material inside and out, and focusing on a strong and confident, but relatable, presence.

This means squaring yourself directly to the audience in a posture that’s authoritative, but not Zeus-like. “You don’t want to be looking down at them from a pedestal,” Goldberg says, “but if you’re slumped and timid-looking, your audience will have a hard time believing you’re an authority. Focus on strong posture, direct eye contact, and clear vocal delivery, and your audience will see you as an expert in no time.

Regardless of political leanings, Obama’s audiences have found it difficult not to recognize his ability to command a room. Though he’s left the White House, we feel sure our 44th president will remain a public figure in the coming years. We’re looking forward to hearing what he has to say.