Why Barack Obama Is a Great Orator and What GOP Candidates Could Learn From TED Talks to Beat Him in 2012


After reading PolicyMic pundit Todd Rufner’s insightful piece about ditching social media to explore the rest of the world, I pledged I would spend more of my online time learning about random topics and broadening my intellectual horizons. Cue in my intellectual candy of choice: TED talks. For those of you unfamiliar with TED, it is a website that melds education and entertainment by taking lectures and presentations from around the world and condensing them into quick, but informative videos. 

Despite the appeal of a lecture about being hooked by an octopus on the TED homepage, I landed on Nancy Duarte’s “Great Talks and What Makes Them Great” (video below). By comparing Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Steve Jobs’ iPhone launch speech, Duarte breaks down the anatomy of an influential rhetoric. Applying Duarte’s logic about impactful oratory reveals why Barack Obama is such a tour de force when it comes to speech giving and what the GOP must do to beat him in 2012.

According to Duarte, all compelling speeches follow a specific pattern: Create a distinct narrative that conveys current situations with a stark comparison to how things could be with the implementation of your idea. Then, leave the audience with a “new normal” or how things will be under your idea. Duarte advocates intentionally referencing the opposition and using the resistance to bolster your ideas, much like a sailboat does with wind. Finally, Duarte stresses the importance of making the audience the hero in the narrative, not the speaker.

Perhaps Duarte’s assertions conjure memories of a freshman year speech class, but with the onslaught of the 2012 election season, they couldn’t come at a more pivotal time. Simply put, Obama is utilizing all of the tools that compel voters: a distinct narrative with contrast between the now and the “could be," using Republican opposition to his benefit and continuing to make average Americans feel like the hero. Meanwhile, the GOP contenders peddle imbroglio over narrative, choose infighting over Obama failed policy and fail to create real connections with the average American.

All is not lost for the GOP, though. Arguably, both Rick Santorum and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) are getting closer to employing Duarte’s pivotal strategies, while Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney lag behind. However, the primary race must produce a Republican candidate who has already mastered the aforementioned strategies. Starting now, each GOP candidate must become a serious threat to Obama by employing the following:

Create a narrative

Platforms are forgettable, but stories are memorable, and subsequently repeatable. Whether you are an avid liberal, staunch conservative or apolitical, it is easy to recount the Obama story: lower-middle class, minority has hope, climbs the ladder from community organizer to senator, becomes the most powerful man in the world. The current slew of GOP candidates must create a personal highlight reel separate from their policy chops to connect name with persona. This is both humanizing and the key to sparking interest in a disengaged electorate.

Recognize and reference the real opposition…frequently

The last four years have given the GOP a fully stocked political arsenal. GOP contenders must exploit the entire gamut of Obama administration failures: the high unemployment rate, failure to mandate more flex-fuel cars, failure to create foreclosure prevention fund for homeowners, or the failure to close Guatanamo Bay. However, contenders must use these failures as a springboard to their innovative policies. This fits Duarte’s model of distinguishing between the “now” and “what could be”.

Make the Average American the Hero

Much of Barack Obama’s appeal is wrapped in his ability to make the little guy feel like the game changer. Romney, Gingrich, Santorum and Paul cannot afford to paint themselves as a hero, but instead should act as a facilitator. Between the national debt and an unfavorable global landscape, America’s problems are too monumental for one man. By elevating the average American, the GOP candidate shows humility, while simultaneously giving Americans a sense of purpose.

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