Friday, July 24, 2009

'Obamatic' Overtalking

Like many people, I can talk too much at times. My boss once told me, "you're not as concise as you think you are". She was right. So I've taken to strengthening a critical communication skill called...knowing when to shut up.

When you run into an overtalker and you hear them say, "and I'd just like to add..." - run!

Now I'm a huge admirer of President Obama as a communicator. This guy really knows how to talk. His speeches have informed and moved the nation. Even his opponents give him his due as an orator of tremendous skill and accomplishment.

Yet on July 22nd his press conference fell short of my expectations for him as a communicator. Like most Americans, I wanted to know the following about health care reform:

  • Why are we doing it?
  • What will I gain or lose?
  • How are we going to pay for it?

The President is a master of the facts, has great presentation skills and has presence out the wazoo - and he did give us some of those answers. So, what's the beef?

I think the beef is this. His answers got buried under a deluge of detail, parenthetical points and extraneous explanation - so much so that you needed to take notes to get the real points. Unfortunately, we're not reporters, we're people - so many of us forgot our notepads.

I realize you have a background that includes lawyering and professoring Mr. President - two professions guaranteed to put everyone to sleep. So overtalking is expected. You're also extremely intelligent. Like former President Clinton, you have such a command of the facts that you sometimes can't resist telling us just one more thing. There's one big problem with that.

Bombarding us with more and more information doesn't help us understand the issue better and by the time you make your fourth point in an answer, we already forgotten your first.

Here are a few simple suggestions for you Mr. President before your next press conference.

  • Dump the teleprompter. Even though they moved it to the middle so you can fake talking directly to us, it still makes you seem like you're running on 'Obamatic'. Your advisers probably want to ensure you get it right. Forget getting it right - get it real. This health care reform measure is one of the centerpieces of your presidency. You shouldn't have to read off a screen to explain it to us and if you do, how can you expect us to understand it if you can't explain it without visual aids. You spent 7:53 reading to us.
  • Give shorter answers. Except for a brief reporter followup "is that your job", your answer to the first question on guidance to Congress was an almost unbroken 7+ minute monologue. That's half as long as President Kennedy's inaugural speech. This isn't a Harvard teach-in. It's an opportunity to connect with the American people on a critical issue between airings of Entertainment Tonight and America's Got Talent. We're used to sound bites and commercials, not PHD dissertations. It has nothing to do with our intelligence, it has everything to do with our attention span in this Twitter/You Tube age.
  • Don't bury the Hook. You gave a 2-minute preamble about inherited deficits before you got to the question many Americans were asking "what's in this for me"? Later on at 13:04 you said "if someone told you..." and proceeded to make the point that the status quo stinks. At another juncture you talked about the stars being aligned between patients, doctors, hospitals, and big pharma companies to get something done. Out of all of that you could have crafted a quick straight-to-the-point Hook that grabbed our attention and set the table for the press conference, instead of starting out on defense.
  • Inject some passion. I appreciate the No Drama Obama style that characterizes you and your administration. It's comforting to know that you don't shoot from the lip and you don't make decisions by the seat of your pants. It helps us sleep at night. In this context though, you needed to project some passion. You are not merely transferring information. You are transferring belief. There are some people who think you have no emotions - that you are all cerebral and no visceral. Health care is a visceral issue. Speak from your gut.
  • Share the burden. Because some in your administration are not very effective communicators, you end up playing the role of Salesperson-In-Chief. Some of the least effective could be much better if they would make a few mechanical changes to their delivery style and engage in some deliberate practice. They can try to escape by saying they're too busy to practice - most busy executives do that. Yet if they could get the health care bill passed by winning a golf match, they'd be out on the driving range at midnight practicing. Don't let them skate.
  • Use more "We" and "Us". I realize you are understandably the main focus of attention in your first year in office, so I hear a lot of "I" and "My" in your speeches and press conferences. As you constantly remind us though, "this is not about me". Make sure your words match that message.

I offer these suggestions with great respect for how difficult it must be to explain complex issues to an audience of 300 million people. You've done a terrific job so far but even you can raise the level of your game.

Mr. President, I wish you great success working with the Congress on this issue but if you choose to continue giving seven-minute answers, I hope to see you at the next Overtalkers Anonymous meeting. It's covered in your health plan - with a 300-word deductible!


  1. Well said Andy,
    Someone has to get this to the Prez. A lot of meat, but one had to be tuned for it. He does have an "I" problem. "I" is effective when it is not overused and only brought into the conversation when it is really appropriate. He is at a disadvantage because he isn't surrounded by great speakers. I do like listening to Rahm Emanuel, though.

  2. reminds me of the indian saying "we have two ears and one mouth.....we should listen 2 times more than we talk" excellent Andy....