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The Obama speech: the power of words

Jan 26, 2009 Business Daily, Leadership

“We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions – that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

Barack Obama, (Inauguration Speech, 20 January 2008)

During the recent US presidential election, there was a lot of scorn heaped on candidate Obama. He was dismissed by both Hillary Clinton and John McCain as being all about “words”. The point being, presumably, that he is just a smooth talker, a silver-tongued one who can talk a wonderful talk but will never walk it. In redneck America, not the world’s most literate constituency, this idea seemed to find some resonance.

We should indeed be worried about empty drums that make a lot of nice-sounding noise but have nothing inside them, as we used to say when I was at school. However, anyone who thinks Barack Obama is an empty drum has many a rethink coming. The reverse is true: he is action personified. Anyone who has studied his election campaign should know this beyond any doubt: it was the best organised, best executed campaign that I have ever observed. It needed to be, to achieve a victory that seemed unthinkable.

Equally, President Obama’s first few days in office have been likened to a whirlwind. The president’s senior aides were dispatched to the White House even before his inauguration speech was over, such was the sense of urgency. Those who mocked the “word guy” would still have been sipping the wine when Team Obama had rolled up its sleeves to get to work.

The balance between word and action, between thought and deed is an important one for business leaders to understand. You have to spend enough time thinking, enough time telling people what you’re thinking – and a lot of time doing it all. I usually operate the 20-80 rule: strategy is 20 per cent design and 80 per cent execution.

The missing link between thought and deed is what Obama is so good at: the right words. If you’re going to inspire people to get cracking, you have to stimulate and excite them. Kenyan leaders, both political and corporate, tend to be terrible at getting the right words out. They rely on deadly dull, jargon-filled, over-complicated, too-long speeches which they read out in a dull monotone. When was the last time you heard a rousing address in Kenya that filled your heart with hope for the future and tickled your brain cells?

President Obama’s speech was pitch-perfect. It was sombre rather than self-congratulatory, and spelled out the seriousness of the crisis that faces America. This wordsmith is also a poker player: he was managing his public’s expectations. He was warning them of the pain ahead, and making sure they realise that it’s not his fault. He tore strips off his predecessor, without mentioning him or his administration even once. He laid the groundwork for the hard work that lies ahead, giving several hints on what to expect. And he made very sure that the people understood: he wasn’t just talking about change; change was going to happen across America, whether the old guard liked it or not.

Learn, and learn well. Take another look at your mode and style of communication. You are unlikely to match Obama’s skill, but you can get better. Remember, less is more. Craft a simple, compelling, convincing message. Find different ways to keep repeating it. And most importantly, you have to mean it. Words are wonderful things when they are true.

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