The results of the Iowa caucuses are in and, no surprise to me, the best communicators won.
Both Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee may have thin resumes, but their ability to inspire, motivate and persuade are unparalleled among the entire field of candidates, Republican and Democratic alike.
This type of oratorical skill is routinely dismissed by officeholder wannabes and their campaigns as not meriting much attention. (It’s also dismissed in the business world.) The only thing that should count, they think, is intellectual skill, political achievements and, perhaps, experience. As we see with the rest of the candidates, especially Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney, they ignore communication skill and style at their peril.
Looking back forty years, my analysis has shown that in each presidential race, the better communicator has won. The winner, by the way, does not have to be a great communicator, just better than his opponent; witness George H.W. Bush v. Michael Dukakis, neither one possessing good communication skills.
Today, such skill is even more important. Candidates are covered and scrutinized relentlessly, their every utterance captured for dissemination to voters. We are persuaded by a candidate’s “likeability,” the elements of which are delivered almost entirely nonverbally, i.e., by the way they look and sound.
Obama, for his part, is untested and has served in the Senate for only a couple of years. His oratory is light on detail and issues, preferring to rely mostly on broad, inspirational and aspirational topics such as hope and change. I have often said about Obama that were it not for his tremendous speaking skill, he would not be on anyone’s radar. Despite his deficiencies, however, voters believe he can be a great president because his speeches are brilliant and soaring, lifting people’s spirits and lifting him into the role of frontrunner for the most important job in the world. He also speaks beautifully, his voice and expression the type we long to hear and see in the leader of the free world and that have, unfortunately, been lacking for the past 8 years. Obama’s skill as a speaker and communicator has changed his life and may change ours.
Huckabee has a vastly different style, but is equally effective. An affable and quick-witted communicator, Huckabee’s brilliance is in his ability to persuade voters that he’s one of them, a regular guy, sensitive to the average American’s needs and plight. He’s also very funny and seems like he’d be fun to be with. We like Mike a lot, and because of this, voters are willing to ignore some of his positions that may not be so much to their liking such as his lack of foreign policy experience and very socially conservative positions. We feel a connection, as we do with Obama, and this connection supercedes any doubts we may have.
My clients and I always get into a discussion of the immense power of nonverbal communication. They are almost universally frustrated that their physical presence has so much influence; they argue with me that it shouldn’t be so, it’s not fair – the only thing that should count is the ability to do the work. My response is always the same: The words they speak are important, but the way they look and sound is equally important. It’s one thing to have a message and another entirely to deliver it with the degree of passion and conviction necessary for it to hit its target.
This is a painful reality for Hillary and Mitt, who must be feeling pretty low right about now. Of course, Iowa is just a blip on the political radar and the New Hampshire results remain to be seen. But if Iowa means anything, it is the continuing and increasing significance of having solid speaking and communication skills. They elevate. They anoint. They’re fair. They matter a great deal.
Ruth Sherman • Ruth Sherman Associates LLC • High Stakes Communications • Greenwich, CT • www.ruthsherman.com