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Senior Leader Communication Skills: Studying Barack Obama

Updated: Apr 11

A survey was conducted of 500+ people who they admired for their speaking skills. 77% said they admired someone other than a colleague or family member. Others noted those that exude leadership communication skills. Of this, the person who was most frequently named (55 people) was Former President Barack Obama.

Barack Obama is an American politician and attorney who served as the first African-American and 44th President of the United States. We have included him on our "Best Public Speakers" list because of his vocal presence, eye contact, and gestures.

By Anu Bhatt and Madina Behori

leader communication

We reviewed video highlights of Former President Barack Obama's final speech as president. He summarizes his accomplishments, emphasizes the need to listen to opposing viewpoints, celebrates his family, and reminds the audience to continue to participate in democracy.

Obama's greatest leader communication skills:

  1. Vocal Presence: Obama is known for his low-pitched, slow-paced vocal style full of impactful pauses. When he is more assertive, he commands listeners with his directness (1:20). However, when he needs to draw his listeners into important moments, he momentarily transitions into a consultative style. This is characterized by a softer, quieter voice (1:14, 1:28-1:39, 4:09). Finally, for those crescendo moments like at the end, he becomes more motivational (4:11-4:17).

  2. Eye Contact: Obama uses eye contact to make the whole audience feel included. Rather than unconsciously scanning the room, he directs his eyes to various sections within the space and stays there through an entire thought (0:11- 1:11). His eyes also help to show his vulnerability. We see him wipe away tears while speaking about his wife and children (2:30-2:59). This makes a large room of thousands of people feel like an intimate room of friends.

  3. Gestures: Obama uses a combination of grand and micro gestures to emphasize his message. Grand gestures are located outside the frame of the body and are used to show passion and confidence. Some examples of this were the “key point” gesture (0:29) to bring attention to his accomplishments and the "karate chop" (0:36-0:42) when talking about fighting against terrorism. He also uses a variety of micro gestures. Micro gestures are located within the frame of the body and are used to convey precision and attention to detail. For example, Obama uses the "closed pincer" when talking about securing marriage equality (0:49) and the "open pincer" (0:56) when talking about the number of Americans with insurance.

What Obama could do to improve his leader communication skills:

  1. Maintaining a Still Frame: There are times when Obama leans on the podium and shifts his weight while speaking (0:11-0:17, 1:28-1:32, 2:00-2:03). This makes him appear more casual. If this is not the impression he was trying to make, we recommend he plant his feet after turning to address a specific section of the audience. This allows him to keep the frame of his body still while placing the majority of his movement into gestures.

  2. Avoiding the “Claw”: Obama seems confident and relaxed in his gestures; however, this can go too far and appear loose and messy. He uses a non-gesture that we refer to as "the claw": fingers spread apart in a swirl-like movement (0:21-0:24, 1:42-1:46, 3:06-3:22). We recommend sharpening up the gestures by keeping his fingers straight and together. This will make his assertive moments that much more powerful.


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