Rating the candidates’ public speaking skills

Thursday, June 12, 2008 | 11:40 a.m. CDT; updated 10:42 a.m. CST, Wednesday, February 4, 2009

And they’re off! No, not the Belmont Stakes, but the American presidential campaign. After the longest primary season ever, it is about time.

Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Reagan and Clinton were some of the greatest speakers in the White House. Last week, senators John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama spoke to the American people. As a speech instructor and as an observer of the political process, I recorded and studied each presentation — I really need to get a life. Who will win the big prize? I have no clue, but here are some observations on their ability to speak.

John McCain is not a great public speaker. He has a lot of attributes that you need to consider before voting but his ability to “woo” a crowd is not one of them. McCain’s charisma and passion are nominal at best. His jokes are poorly written and badly delivered. Yet, as a senator he created a level of cooperation rarely seen in American politics, something easily translated to the White House.

My students are trained in the “what makes you crazy” rule. If it drives the audience crazy, stop. Mr. McCain, if you are reading this — and I know you are — we have found one. We believe someone told you to smile ... a lot. Please stop. Very few people can make a forced smile look natural and you are not one of them. You appear disingenuous, even untrustworthy, and that will lose votes.

The senator from Arizona needs to get back to doing what he does best: speaking extemporaneously. Give him an outline, make sure he knows the facts and speaks to the important points. Then get rid of the jokes and let him loose. McCain does a great job capturing an audience when he is left to his own methods. Stop trying to change him.

On June 7, Senator Clinton finally stopped running. It took a while, but I fully expected the Clinton campaign to fight on. Why? If you listened to her speeches, especially her June 3 speech, you heard strength, vision and hope. You heard Clinton’s resolve, her fight and her desire to achieve the ultimate prize, the presidency. For the senator from New York it was her powerful ‘masculine voice’ that won and lost votes — not masculine in a physical sense, but in the language, sounds and attitudes we saw in her presentations.

Presidential contender Pat Schroeder and vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro showed this same resolve in 1984, as well as Senator Elizabeth Dole, former president of the American Red Cross and 2000 presidential candidate. Now it was Clinton’s turn.

Unfortunately her speeches confused a lot of people: “She’s too manly,” “She’s too strong,” “She’s not feminine.” When she did show her feminine side, Clinton was pounced on by the media for being weak. Try telling Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir or Margaret Thatcher that women are poor world leaders. Clinton’s run for the White House may have suffered from her strength in voice but not her ability to lead. She was a great contender.

Senator Obama’s ‘rock star’ image only climbed since his 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address. Obama’s youth and energy are captured in his voice. His tone, the quality of his language and his persuasive style place him alongside Lincoln, Reagan, Clinton and, most important, John Kennedy. Even the opposition agree to this. It does not matter if you like Obama or not; you are captured by his oratory skills. He is now the man to beat.

So does his superior public speaking ability mean that the senator from Illinois will win the ultimate political crown in November?

Horse racing is fickle. We were all reminded of this with the running of Belmont Stakes. No matter how many races you won before, the last furlongs of this race will decide who walks to the winner’s circle. Big Brown, the predicted winner, lost. It is not called a political ‘race’ for nothing.

David Rosman is a business and political communications consultant, professional speaker and instructor at Columbia College. He welcomes your comments at

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