Michelle Obama shone bright on the first day of the Democratic National Convention. She had many tough acts to follow (you can read about them here), but once she took the stage, she made you forget all the other speeches that came before.
The First Lady’s delivery was packed with confidence. You will be more credible as a speaker if you use an open, expansive posture and definite, clear gestures. Watch the video to see how it’s done:
Notice that even though she had a lectern in front of her, Michelle was still able to connect with her audience. She is warm and engaging because of her strong eye contact and her animated face. She has those famously toned arms of hers on display—a physical confidence that translates into credibility. She uses clear hand gestures to tell her story, and she simply lifts her hands over the lectern rather than hiding them behind it. She illustrates a truism of public speaking: You will be more credible if you take up a little more space in the room. Physical confidence translates into rhetorical confidence.
Her pace is also letter-perfect. A speaker who uses the conversational rhythms of everyday speech, rather than one who appears to be reciting memorized remarks, is easier for an audience to understand and connect with. Michelle talks like a real human being. She slows down her delivery when she shares details of her married life, as if she were speaking to a friend. She pauses when the audience applauds. But when she wants to build to a crescendo, she steps up the pace and the volume. Pace, pausing and volume are all extremely effective tools in bringing drama into your delivery.
The speech was nicely constructed to offer a contrast with the themes of last week, without requiring Michelle to devolve into full-on attack mode For example, she spoke about the Obamas’ lives as children and as a young married couple, and — although she never once mentioned Mitt by name — was able to make a more convincing claim than the Romneys that she and her husband really did grow up poor, struggle with student loans and earn their own success.
She used that theme of success very effectively, deftly undercutting the Republican theme that Romney is being attacked for his success, while sneaking in a jab at last week’s speakers (like Ryan) who were less than truthful with the facts:
[Our parents] didn’t begrudge anyone else’s success or care that others had much more than they did…in fact, they admired it. We learned about honesty and integrity – that the truth matters…that you don’t take shortcuts or play by your own set of rules…and success doesn’t count unless you earn it fair and square. We learned about gratitude and humility – that so many people had a hand in our success, from the teachers who inspired us to the janitors who kept our school clean…and we were taught to value everyone’s contribution and treat everyone with respect. . . [F]or Barack, success isn’t about how much money you make, it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.
While the Republicans reached for the theme of women, Michelle instead spoke about what it means to be a man. She offered up a new image of masculinity, embodied by both her father and her husband, in which power comes not from making the most money, but from taking care of your loved ones:
He was so proud to be sending his kids to college…and he made sure we never missed a registration deadline because his check was late. You see, for my dad, that’s what it meant to be a man. Like so many of us, that was the measure of his success in life – being able to earn a decent living that allowed him to support his family.
Notice, also, that even though Michelle never explicitly attacked Romney, she hit many of the themes that we listed in a previous post as being critical to the Democrats’ case: Obama kept the economy from collapsing, rescued the auto industry, wanted everyone to have the same opportunity “no matter who we love” (support for gay marriage), enacted sweeping health care reform, strengthened social programs, reformed the student loan system, and signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act promoting fair wages for women.
Michelle Obama used emotion effectively in two ways.
First, she was able to project a believable devotion to her husband without devolving into over-the-top gushiness (e.g. Ann Romney: “I love you, women!”). When she tells you that Obama eats with his family, is nuts about his kids, worries about the downtrodden, will do what he says he’s going to do, you believe it because she believes it.
Second, she was able to engender emotion in her audience. Democrats have been waiting for the catharsis of the “Yes, we can” moments from the 2008 election. They would like it to be delivered by their candidate, but the First Lady is a pretty satisfying substitute. Notice the cheers and the devotion in the faces of her audience as Michelle delivers lines like:
I love that for Barack, there is no such thing as “us” and “them” – he doesn’t care whether you’re a Democrat, a Republican, or none of the above…he knows that we all love our country…and he’s always ready to listen to good ideas…he’s always looking for the very best in everyone he meets.
Barack isn’t the only Obama who knows how to bring hope to a crowd. His wife is giving him a pretty good run for his money.