Gesture Language

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I watched Obama’s much-anticipated speech at the West Point Military Academy with great interest. It was not the content that fascinated me; most of the new U.S. strategy of surge and withdraw in Afghanistan had been leaked already. It was his delivery that captivated me.

First, I noted the venue. Obama pulled Bush’s old trick of delivering an iffy speech before an audience guaranteed to be polite if not supportive. The audience lived up to the mini- mum expectation – politeness. The applause was scant and tepid. Like Bush, who staged his “Mission Accomplished” speech on a battleship, Obama’s venue screamed “patriotism.” He was hedging his bet, big time.

Second, the man known as a consummate orator looked nervous, jerky, and off his game. A large part of the jerkiness came from his constantly shifting focus from a teleprompter on the left to a teleprompter on the right. The frequent, rapid back-and-forth made him appear literally shifty and mechanical. Not looking into the camera meant that he rarely looked the TV audience in the eye, and this made him appear either disingenuous or uncertain.

Third, the very tone of his voice was different. Known for inspirational rhetoric, Obama was somber and matter-of-fact in delivery. He rarely tapped into his great strength – the ability to suck in an audience emotionally, so that the content becomes secondary.

This speech did not captivate. Instead of listening to him, I started counting the number of times his posture shifted, now to the left, now to the right. No wonder the online edition of the Daily Telegraph (UK) ran the headline “Barack Obama is no Churchill.”

If this was Obama’s most important speech as president (and I believe it was), then he failed miserably in both content and delivery. I wonder if cracks are appearing in his confidence.

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