What's one of the first things you think of when I say "Barack Obama"?
Gifted orator, right?
After all, it was his speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention that catapulted him to prominence in the first place. And ever since then, he's electrified the nation and the world with his oratorical prowess.
That's the quickie version of the Obama the Orator story. But what if I told you that the president actually isn't a very adept or versatile public speaker.
Would you believe me? Well, let me explain.
There are basically four kinds of public speaking: manuscript, memory, extemporaneous and impromptu.
Speaking from a manuscript means reading a speech. The speaker rehearses from the manuscript, which he has in front of him during the actual delivery.
Obama is primarily a manuscript speaker. With his trusty TelePrompTer, he reads speeches and other remarks from a manuscript. The words are projected on several screens, and he reads the speech while looking from side to side.
MANUSCRIPT speaking is usually reserved for important or long addresses. You use a script when you want to be certain of your words or when the speech runs more than a few minutes.
But President Obama now uses a TelePrompTer for almost everything: brief introductions, opening statements at press conferences, quick explanatory remarks, even White House toasts.
Under these circumstances, the prompter often seems out of place and even awkward. It doesn't make for good photo shoots and otherwise compromises the coverage. Plus the president has to look from side to side (to the prompter panels) instead of straight ahead.
And, the equipment is hardly gaffe proof. Recently a prompter foulup reportedly had Obama momentarily introducing himself. Maybe that's why he tried to ditch it at his recent press conference. But he still used a large TV screen placed in the back of the room. No real difference.
Without a prompter or a script, the best way to be certain of what you're saying is to speak from recall. This means actually memorizing your remarks word-for-word and incorporating the appropriate inflections, pacing and gestures. It's what actors do. But Obama is not a memorizer.
The most common form of public speaking nowadays is "extemporaneous." This means speaking from notes. Your remarks aren't written word-for-word, but you have "cheat cards" that remind you of words or phrases that guide you through the key points of the speech. You take it from there. This is the method most experienced politicians use. You don't need a TelePrompTer. The cards are discreet and effective.
Finally, there is impromptu speaking.
This is when you speak off the cuff, called on without warning. You have no notes. You get up, think fast and speak on your feet. Only the most accomplished public speakers (and gifted trial lawyers) can do it.
Gov. Rendell and ex-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani are examples of especially effective impromptu speakers. They can think, gesture and elocute - even "read" their audiences, all at the same time.
But when called on to speak extemporaneously or impromptu, Obama seems not to be up to the task. Anyone who's heard him knows he often hems and haws, drifting into a series of "ahhhhs" and "uhhhhs" and "ya knows."
And even when he does a reasonable job, he sometimes seems to fumble his points - as when he said that small-town Americans "cling" to guns and religion. Or when he made fun of ex-first lady Nancy Reagan, wrongly stating she held "séances." Or joked about Jessica Simpson "losing a weight battle." Most recently, he created an uproar by saying that his bowling was so bad "it was like the Special Olympics."
PEOPLE spent years making fun of Ronald Reagan because he was an actor. But Reagan's acting experience taught him the art or memorization.
Plus, as a former TV host, Reagan was a master of the TelePrompTer. Over decades spent on the road as the spokesman for GE, Reagan skillfully honed a system of speaking from note cards.
And, when called on, he could successfully speak impromptu as well. Love him or hate him,
he was the master of addressing all sorts of crowds, formally or informally.
That's the mark of an adept, versatile, accomplished public speaker. By comparison, Barack Obama doesn't come close. *
Daniel A. Cirucci is a lecturer in corporate communications at Penn State Abington, where he teaches public speaking. He blogs at dancirucci.blogspot.com.