What Makes Obama a Good Speaker?
After studying the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, linguist Mark Liberman found that their speaking styles are “very different.”
Then there’s Barack Obama.
His keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention instantly earned him a reputation as one of the Democratic Party’s great contemporary orators. And that reputation has only been further hyped since the beginning of the presidential campaign, most recently because of the wildly popular music video, “Yes We Can,” which set to music Obama’s primary night speech in New Hampshire. The video, created by Black Eyed Peas front man will.i.am, was released on Feb. 2 and has been viewed almost 10 million times on YouTube and yeswecansong.com.
Liberman, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks the most distinctive thing about Obama’s speeches isn’t the delivery, but the lyricism in the writing.
“You can take a short phrase like that, spoken any kind of way as long as it’s not dragged out, and sing over it,” he said. “There’s also a certain amount of repetition — the ‘Yes We Can’ theme — that allows this kind of weaving of vocal lines. But if that’s right, then what’s really musical about that speech was not so much its delivery, but its composition. It was written like a song, but not performed like a song.”
Linguist Geoff Nunberg, too, sees elements of Obama’s speeches that he says lend themselves to song.
“He does these parallel constructions,” said Nunberg, a researcher at Stanford University’s Center for the Study of Language and Information. “For example, he says, ‘It’s not because of this, it’s not because of that.’”
In a Jan. 20 New York Times story, Obama’s head speechwriter, 26-year-old Jon Favreau, said when writing speeches for Obama, he draws inspiration from John Kennedy, King and Robert F. Kennedy, suggesting, again, that Obama’s reputation as a master speechmaker owes a large debt to the...