Friday, April 11, 2008

Communication Skills

I've heard a number of people say "sure Obama is a good communicator but that won't make him a good president" or "he can give a great speech but he never really says anything." I take issue with both of these comments.

I contend that being a good communicator is a requirement for a successful presidency. For a moment, let's set aside the content of communication and focus on the skill or craft of speaking. Andy Rooney, of 60-minutes fame, did a piece last year about the daily schedule of the president. If you don't have two minutes to watch the piece, the basic idea is that the president's daily schedule is jam-packed with meetings of very short duration. The day is so jam packed that the president has people handling many things you and I take care of on our own like, for example, laying out cloths for the next day. Rooney laments that such a busy schedule leaves little time for thinking. I propose it causes another problem - it heightens the need for exceptional communication skills.

With only a short period of time to interact, a president's communication skills can mean the difference between gaining support for an idea and forever losing an opportunity to gain a supporter; between developing a relationship that turns an enemy into an ally and coming off as ill-informed, arrogant, or unaware of the issues that are important to another leader; between motivating staff or the public to commit to a new change initiative and general ambivalence or even outright opposition.

Here's another way of looking at it. Last week Ann Coulter visited Penn State. In her speech she said that George Bush has done such a great job fighting terrorists that Republicans can no longer use that subject as a key campaign issue. Just for a minute, let's take that statement as fact. Let's assume the tactics employed by the Bush administration have, in fact, kept us safe and eliminated much of the threat. Why doesn't the average American see it that way? Why are Bush's approval numbers at record lows? I would argue that, even if he has kept us safe, his numbers are this low because he hasn't the ability to communicate with the American public about the important things he is doing. When he speaks, he doesn't inspire or generate confidence. Rather, he comes across like he is complaining about something most of the time. This is regardless of the content of his message.

You don't believe communications skills matter? Compare in your mind the difference between Reagan and either of the Bush presidencies. Compare Bill Clinton to John Kerry. Compare your favorite teachers from college or high school with those you disliked. What was it about these people that made one group better than another? Often it's communication skills...the ability to connect and relate to people...the ability to read a situation, understand another persons needs and interests and respond in such a way as to show more commonalities than differences. This is a gift that Barack Obama has. And its not just important when talking to the American public. The president must interact with world leaders or all stripes. Communication skills, the ability to inspire, to instill trust, and generate a sense of mutual respect are critical.

Of course a president needs more than just good communication skills. In addition to the craft of speaking, one must also have content to speak about. Some would suggest that Barack lacks substance to much of his speech. I believe this couldn't be further from the truth. If you believe he lacks content, I encourage you to take some time to really listen to some original audio from a speech or two. What you will find is nuance and complexity that is often missing in our political dialogue today. Take, for example his speech on race.

Set aside for a minute his relationship with his former pastor. Take time to listen to the content of this speech and hear the message. I'll BLOG another day about what I heard and will leave it to you to decide if he lacks substance.

Looking for another view on this? Take a look at a Newsweek Blog entry about McCain vs. Barack on education specifics.

Finally, attached below is a nice compilation of impressive speakers, include Barack Obama.

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