During President-Elect Barack Obama's press conference last Monday when he announced his foreign policy team he said "uh" or a version thereof 192 times within a fifteen minute time span. At approximately twenty-eight minutes into the press conference when he opened the floor to reporter's questions, the President-Elect paused more times (and not quietly) then a tractor trailer waiting to get through the tolls of the NJ Turnpike at rush hour. I dare you to listen to the speech and count all the "uh's, um's and umm's as I did and not be put to sleep. Just who is this alien speaker who has inhabited the once elegant Barack Obama?
B.O. what happened?! I sat glued to my television set last summer when you gave your incredibly direct and poignant speech in Philadelphia on race. You spoke with ease, charm and intelligence at the Democratic Convention in Denver. And I cried along side my wife when the election was 'called' and you were declared the winner. Even during the debates you kept your use of listless and irritating language to an absolute minimum and we all thanked your for it - even the Republicans.
As someone who coaches and instructs others on presentations skills and speeches I always have an eye and ear out for what makes a successful speech and what does not. When I ask clients what areas they would like to improve upon they answer that both controlling their nerves and reducing or eliminating their filler words or their top priorities. I have exercises for both and use a high tech behavioral tool called a rubber band that the client wears on his/her wrist. Each time they use a filler word they snap the rubber band that smarts. After a dozen or so snaps of the band they hesitate before using "uh" or "hum" or "like" or "you know".
Filler words, of which I am guilty of using from time-to-time are gap fillers. They give the speaker time to think. However, silence is much more powerful and effective than saying "hummm" when one is lost for words or deciding just how much information they would like to divulge or how much truth they want to share, as I believe was the case with our President-Elect. I've queried audiences after they've sat through presentations, speeches and keynote addresses and asked what they liked or disliked about the presenter/speaker and what they thought needed improvement. On the plus side: 'the presenter was engaging, new her material, and kept things moving. On the improvement needed side: 'talks to slow and says "hum" and "uh" a lot.'
Besides Mr. Obama's filler words, the tone of his speech was different than any he used while campaigning. This is where knowing your audiences is so important. The subject matter was very important and serious last Monday and the President-Elect did seem convey that through is body language and tone. (The Secretary of State and the Nation's security are extremely important topics.) I also heard something in Mr. Obama's tone besides serious and important. Through his tone of voice it sounded something like, 'I'm the boss and the buck stops here.' (He did say at one point "the buck stops here.") It sounded akin to who is currently in the White House.
Now, please don't end me angry emails in defense of Mr. Obama. I'm thrilled that he and his family will be moving to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I even applied for a position with his administration and maybe he'll consider me as his presentation coach. And I do look forward to the President-Elect implementing is plan of change and getting us out of the terrible messes that we are in both domestically and internationally. I also hope that he'll pick up the rubber band and put an end to the use of those speech killing filler words.