Creating an image – can a speech do it?

2008

With the imminent "official" start of the US Presidential election campaign, it's probably an appropriate time to look at the impact a person's public speeches (such as a CEO or electoral candidate) has on the audience.

Through social science research, we have known for some time that the use of rhetoric, imagery and metaphors can positively impact how the audience perceives and acts on the message. However a recent study has now taken this one step further.

The results of the research by James J Naidoo and Robert G. Lord in the June edition of the Leadership Quarterly, suggest that not only does the use of such tactics impact audience behaviour, used well, they also have a positive affect on how we perceive the charisma of the speaker.

Listen once again to some of the rhetoric, imagery, and metaphors candidate Barack Obama used in his now (almost) famous race speech in March …

"I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton's Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas.

I've gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world's poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave-owners -- an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters."

In a poll taken shortly after this speech, Obama was shown to be leading Hilary Clinton in the Democratic nomination race by 53 to 41 per cent. The behavioural impact stats are there, but did the speech impact our perception of Obama's charisma?

Recent press reports concerning the advice being given to Obama include; "get specific – lay out concrete plans", "describe your experience in government – make Americans comfortable with you as their CEO", "hammer your opponent above and below the belt". None of this advice has anything to do with charisma – they are all about facts, logic and detail.

The other candidate, John McCain uses very little rhetoric, imagery and metaphor, but a lot of reason and logic in his speeches. For example, in his address to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council in March, only his opening paragraph gives any imagery or metaphor concerning McCain as a person. The remaining 34 paragraphs all talk about reason and logic, saying nothing about the character of the man.

As one press report concluded; "McCain appears dependent on a teleprompter, delivering even the most personal passages with an odd detachment. In his telling, his difficult five-and-a-half years as Vietnam prisoner of war might have happened to someone else." However, McCain does do well in less formal settings, like town hall meetings and one-on-one conversations. But his discomfort behind the podium is a distinct disadvantage as he struggles for national media attention.

Initially, the race between the two presidential candidates was well and truly led by Obama. Audiences loved his charisma. In more recent times, the race has become much closer. Audiences are now listening for what's behind the message in terms of the reason and logic that will affect their day to day lives.

The research by Naidoo and Lord bears out these poll results. They say that "high speech imagery will result in higher state positive affect in followers, compared to low speech imagery". So it appears as if Obama's advisors are now on the right track – he's developed an appropriate charisma in the eyes of the voting public, now it's time for reality.

What advice will be given to McCain?

More importantly for us mere mortals as managers and in particular for CEOs, what's the message from this latest research?

There are three . . .

Firstly, when speaking publicly, a manager or CEO needs to use personal imagery and metaphors, so that the audience can see and feel the character of the person.

Secondly, such imagery works best when the situation is critical or the audience perceives they are in a crisis. People want the big picture and in particular, to hear and feel how the speaker has lived through similar times him or herself.

Finally, the detail – the reason and logic – is best handled one on one and in small group settings. For CEOs this means a very structured process of explicit communication down through the organisation as to how the big picture will translate locally.

Having looked at this research and taken an interest in the Presidential race so far, I'll be keenly looking to see what happens with the communication strategies of both candidates. I'll be particularly interested in how both candidates handle the TV debates – will they be charisma- or reality-driven?

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About The Author

Bob Selden
Bob Selden

Bob Selden is MD of the Australian National Learning Institute and author of What To Do When You Become The Boss. He has been a boss many times over. He's also worked for many. Some of these relationships have been fantastic and some did not work as well as they might have.