Fast Company

Barack Obama's September 26 Debate Performance: 4 Strengths From Which We Can Learn

With the U.S. presidential election a little over four weeks away, great attention is currently focused on the presidential debate performances of the two major party nominees—Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain. The two participated in their first presidential debate on Friday, September 26, 2008. Some pundits questioned whether Barack Obama could perform well enough, given the belief among some parties that he is a world-class orator when delivering speeches, but less strong when debating. How did he do? Obama performed excellently, with initial polling seeming to indicate that support has shifted in his favor. In particular, Obama displayed four areas of strength from which leaders in all fields can learn: 

1. Charisma of a leader – From the moment he moved onto the podium, Obama exuded confidence and charisma. Everything from the squared shoulders to his posture to his fluid gestures conveyed assurance to listeners. As we see in my recently published book, Say It Like Obama: the Power of Speaking with Purpose and Vision (McGraw Hill, 2008 - www.sayitlikeobama.com), Obama has honed this keen ability to convey confidence and charisma. In this regard, he delivered excellently during the debate. 

2. Calibrating detail –As we see in my book, Say It Like Obama: the Power of Speaking with Purpose and Vision (McGraw Hill, 2008 - www.sayitlikeobama.com), Obama has developed great skill in calibrating the amount of detail he offers based on the circumstances of his remarks. In the case of the debate, details mattered. Obama spoke in sufficient depth on all of the major issues to demonstrate clearly to listeners that he has mastered the main issues of foreign policy and has well-considered views of how America should move forward in the world. If Obama had shown uncertain knowledge or offered too little detail in some of his responses, his performance would have been undercut considerably. 

3. Underscoring ethics/ Respectfulness toward his opponent – Some observers believed that John McCain intentionally refused to look directly at Barack Obama during the debates. Whether or not this is true, the perception that this was the case has fueled great criticism of McCain in the aftermath of the debate. Obama, on the other hand, at most times seemed very cordial toward Senator McCain, looked directly at him, and turned from opportunities to retort with belittling comments. The seemingly minor points had major implications—they conveyed to observers a level of respectfulness that seemed to enhance Obama’s reputation for high ethics. Obama usually takes care in his public pronouncements to underscore his strong ethics and his debate performance was in keeping with this, reinforcing his “brand” of being “above” low-ball politicking. 

4. Use of voice and tone – Obama has developed great skill in wielding his voice like a fine-tuned musical instrument. During the debate, he sounded firm and resolute at critical moments. One of the aims of his delivery was, of course, to come across as “presidential.” The firmness and certitude with which he made his pronouncements left good impressions.

Dr. Shel Leanne is author of Say It Like Obama: the Power of Speaking with Purpose and Vision (McGraw Hill, 2008 - www.sayitlikeobama.com) and President of Regent Crest, a leadership development firm whose clients come from Fortune 500 companies.

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