Saturday, February 13, 2010

#204 SOTU Footnote--Toastmasters 101

First let me say with, I assure you, more than just faint praise, I thank whatever gods may be that Barack Obama is our 44th President--because I have to think but a split second about the hellish alternative that might have come to pass. Except for one horrendous area of disagreement--THE MIDDLE-EAST WARS--I'm with him. His vision for America is just about right, and ever so fortuitously at the right time. Now if he could only get 'er done.

Here's a final criticism of his State of the Union, and by extension ALL of his prepared speeches. They've been praised, but I can't understand why. Sure, they're excellent on the printed page--kudos to his speechwriters and his editorial oversight. In fact, I have no doubt that much of the lexical content is his own--he's a published author of a pretty good book. But his delivery is bad. No, it's not the teleprompter thing. He's as good as Letterman at making us unaware of that (unlike the notorious "palm-reading" of Sarah Palin, lately in the news--who, incredibly, lampooned Obama's teleprompter-dependency as she cribbed off her own ink-stained hands!). No, it's his perfunctory head-wagging.

May seem trivial, but I'll explain why, in terms of audience perceptions and expectations, it's not. Obama's not quite as bad as the worst of the all-time head-waggers, Presidential-aspirant Michael Dukakis, who I'm convinced lost the election to Bush pere because of it. (Parolee Willie Horton and Dukakis' dress-up, tonka-toy-tank photo-op didn't help either, of course. Poor guy, he really had no chance, though, against popular RR's hand-picked lackey.) On the other hand, and here's the anomaly: Obama is GREAT, off-the-cuff. No sideways bobble-head problem at all in impromptu situations like pressers, town-halls, etc.

But take a look again at the photo in last post. He's caught in his right-side wag. His head will stop, if it hasn't already, stay fixed for several moments, and then make its swing to the exact opposite position on the left. Hold, swing right. Hold, repeat. No variation. No pause at any point in the horizontal arc, from one side to the other. It's a lazy way of appearing to include everybody in the speech-event, but in fact ends up excluding them. Who's he really looking at? Nobody. His eyes sweep over the heads of his audience, resting unfocused on one side, and then back to the other. The truly attentive among the audience will feel this uncomfortably, even on the unconscious level, whether in person or watching on TV.

I noticed this irritating habit way back when began his campaign. So it amazes me that someone on his team didn't sound the alert long ago. You don't have to be a second-level (ATM) Toastmaster like me (who has actually judged regional competitions)--to notice it. It's pretty elementary. Head and eye movement need to be varied--the unfocused bob and weave is okay, as long as the speaker engages individual members of the audience, at strategic intervals, eyeball to eyeball. "Wow! this speech is meant especially for ME," or my neighbor two rows down. What great eye-contact. Open and honest. And so on.

When lacking, this becomes the untoward perception, even (again) unconsciously: "This guy is afraid to look me in the eye." Or anybody else's. What's his problem? What's he hiding? This can only dull the expectations of a willing audience. Altogether it can only add to the distrust--justified or not--that many harbor toward our new President. Somebody please wise him up.

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