I was travelling back home when I heard about it. I met my girlfriend and she said “Have you seen the Obama thing?”. I looked at my tablet. ‘President Obama Wipes Away Tears While Talking About Gun Control’. Speeches, however impassioned, rarely make the headlines - let alone command space among my emails. This had to be something different.
And it is. Obama’s speech starts off in a conventional way. He exudes authority. Strong posture over the podium. Open, warm tone, with the subtle cadences of a baptist minister.
But then he falters. “And from first graders, in Newtown…”
Something’s happened to him. He’s visibly upset. He regains his poise a little: he’s the president, after all, and he has to keep on an even keel.
So he slips into presidential autopilot.
“And from every family who never imagined that their loved ones would be taken from our lives by a bullet from a gun.”
But it’s not enough. So he stops.
He could have carried on. He’s been president for 7 years, Senator years before that: he knows how to blag through a speech. He’s got enough rhetorical cliches in his locker to pull him through any silence. He could drown his emotion in spin.
But at 0:49, he makes a decision. He decides not to. He lets the silence spin out.
And spin out.
He wipes the tears from his eyes.
And fifteen long seconds later…
In a world of soundbites, spin doctors and noise, this is a supreme silence. A silence that speaks volumes for Obama’s public speaking prowess and moral integrity. He could have gone back to platitudes, and hidden behind his skilled political persona. But no:
“Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad.
“And by the way - it happens on the streets of Chicago every day.”
What can we learn? To let the silence ring. Stop yourself from reverting to autopilot. Allow the moment to hang. So many people think public speaking means drowning your audience in words, ideas, concepts.
No - let it be simple. Let it be honest. Let it hang.