The day Barack Obama discovered his powers of oratory and rhetoric

There’s a fascinating sequence in Dreams from My Father in which Barack Obama describes his involvement in a college anti-apartheid rally when he was about 20 - in the lead-up to which be became aware that people were listening to what he said and that he was becoming ‘hungry for words’:

But as the months passed and I found myself drawn into a larger role-contacting representatives of the African National Congress to speak on campus, drafting letters to the faculty, printing up flyers, arguing strategy – I noticed that people had begun to listen to my opinions. It was a discovery that made me hungry for words. Not words to hide behind but words that could carry a message, support an idea. When we started planning the rally for the trustees' meeting, and somebody suggested that I open the thing, I quickly agreed. I figured I was ready, and could reach people where it counted. I thought my voice wouldn't fail me.

The plan was that he, as one of the few black students, would start making a speech but would be dragged away by white colleagues, disguised as South African security men, in order to illustrate how ANC supporters were treated by the apartheid regime. But, as he spoke, his role in the piece became more real and less of the acted-out part it had been supposed to be :

Without waiting for a cue, I stepped up to the microphone.

“There’s a struggle going on," I said. My voice barely carried beyond the first few rows. A few people looked up, and I waited for the crowd to quiet.

"I say, there's a struggle going on!"

The Frisbee players stopped.

"It's happening an ocean away.
But it's a struggle that touches each and every one of us.
Whether we know it or not.
Whether we want it or not.

A struggle that demands we choose sides.
Not between black and white.
Not between rich and poor.

No — it’s a harder choice than that.
It's a choice between dignity and servitude.
Between fairness and injustice.
Between commitment and indifference.
A choice between right and wrong ..."

I stopped. The crowd was quiet now, watching me. Somebody started to clap. "Go on with it, Barack," somebody else shouted. "Tell it like it is." Then the others started in, clapping, cheering, and I knew that I had them, that the connection had been made. I took hold of the mike, ready to plunge on, when I felt someone's hands grabbing me from behind. It was just as we'd planned it, Andy and Jonathan looking grim-faced behind their dark glasses. They started yanking me off the stage, and I was supposed to act like I was trying to break free, except a part of me wasn't acting, I really wanted to stay up there, to hear my voice bouncing off the crowd and returning back to me in applause. I had so much left to say.

… At the party that night, Regina came up to me and offered her congratulations. I asked what for.

"For that wonderful speech you gave."

I popped open a beer. “It was short, anyway.”

Regina ignored my sarcasm. “That’s what made it so effective,” she said. “You spoke from the heart, Barack. It made people want to hear more ... ”

Although he is very self-deprecating in what follows, three things stand out as being of special interest in the light of what has happened since his speech to the Democratic Convention in 2004.

First, in what was perhaps his first ever political speech, a command of some of the most important rhetorical techniques was already there (though admittedly as recalled and rewritten by him many years later).

Second, his response to the positive audience response shows that he was not only fully aware of the good rapport he had achieved, but also thoroughly enjoyed it.

Third, Regina’s compliment about his speaking from the heart and people wanting to hear more was an an early and accurate prediction of the effect he would have on national and international audiences more than two decades later.

How to make reading a slide sound interesting

If an interesting way of reading from a slide sounds like an oxymoron, have a look at THIS to see how the same lines can be read forwards and backwards - but make sure you stay with it all the way through.

PowerPoint style presentation continues to dominate BBC News – courtesy Robert Peston (again)

In a number of previous posts (here and here), I’ve complained about the obsession of BBC Television news (and other) programmes with increasingly elaborate and confusing graphics.

I can see that using computerised graphics is cheaper than sending reporters and camera crews out to film newsworthy events, but they leave the average viewer (e.g. me) ever more baffled and confused about what tonight's gripping messages are supposed to be.

As if the distracting information overload inflicted on us by the daily diet of PowerPoint presentations isn’t depressing enough, our premier public service broadcaster is still giving us yet another dose of much the same thing on its prime-time evening news bulletins.

Tonight’s offering from Robert Preston plumbed new depths (see below). The ‘news story’ was actually a lecture, disguised as television news footage by flashing moving numbers on the screen, followed by a still picture with a bullet point on it purporting to explain what the biggest of the numbers is supposed to mean.

Just in case anyone was getting bored or baffled by Peston’s monologue at this stage, he suddenly materialises, still talking, on a small TV screen in the corner of a room, from which furniture and fittings keep disappearing – possibly because they can’t stand any more of it either.

Our esteemed business correspondent then returns to his natural habitat, standing next to a screen with slides on it, before we finally get to see a few seconds of film of buildings in the City of London that are presumably intended to make us feel that his PowerPoint presentation was a news story after all.

(I'd be interested to hear from visitors from outside the UK whether this bizarre development in television news coverage is a peculiarly British phenomenon or is a world-wide trend).

The 'magic' of Oscar acceptance speeches

It's an interesting fact that, at school speech days and company award-giving events, the lucky winners do not get to make acceptance speeches - with result that audiences are spared the endless succession of embarrassing expressions of surprise, gratitude and false modesty that are the norm at the annual Academy Awards and Golden Globe ceremonies.

If acceptance speeches aren’t considered a necessary part of such events in the world outside show business, it raises the question of why the organizers allow and encourage Oscar winners to say anything at all – other than, perhaps, Alfred Hitchcock’s minimalist masterpiece (“Thank you”) back in 1967.

Do they really think that anyone wants to hear the succession of rambling thanks to everyone who ever existed (including Clint Eastwood’s mother for passing on her genes to him) or the uncontrolled emotional outbursts from the likes of Halle Berry, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Winslet?

The answer is obviously an emphatic “yes”. Otherwise, without the unpredictable possibility of such embarrassing excesses, movie award ceremonies would be so boring that no one would ever watch them, let alone pay large sums of money to broadcast such magical moments to the wider world.

(See here for Paul Hogan's much ignored good advice on award winners' speeches and some reflections on why speech-making doesn't come naturally to actors).

Does Mrs Clinton really know someone everywhere she goes?

During Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, I was continually amazed at how, whichever state she happened to be in, she would engage in manic waving and pointing at someone in the crowd whom she appeared to recognize.

Given that this was done from under bright spotlights that must have made it more or less impossible to see anyone at all in a large audience, I assumed that she must have been acting on the advice of image-handlers, who thought it might work in her favour if she were seen to have friends everywhere she went.

Now that she's US Secretary of State, such a ploy would seem to be even more pointless, but a picture in today’s Daily Telegraph shows Mrs Clinton engaged in identical manic waving at someone a crowd in Seoul, Korea – which has got me wondering whether she really does have a global network of friends or suffers from some kind of obscure Pavlovian response whenever she finds herself in front of a crowd.

Personality cult as an antidote to tribalism?

One thing I had not expected to be reminded of in Kenya was the ubiquitous official portraits of ‘THE LEADER’ that used to adorn shops and public places in communist countries like the former Yugoslavia, where you could hardly move without a picture of Tito (left) bearing down on you.

Thirty years on, I felt a similar sense of unease on seeing Kenya’s dubiously ‘elected’ President Kibaki (right) beaming benevolently down on me from above the reception desks in hotels, and various other public places.

Did this mean, I wondered, that the personality cult was being revived and imposed from on high by a ‘leader’ keen to bolster the shakiness of his position?

Apparently not, according to the locals I raised the question with. The framed pictures of Kibaki are put there by smart business people (at their own expense) to insure themselves against anyone jumping to the conclusion that they might be actively opposed to the new power-sharing settlement between Kikuyu and Luo politicians.

Most of the Kenyans I spoke to were despondent about the continuingly negative influence of tribalism on the country and its failure to develop a genuine national sense of identity (a criticism that had got Barack Obama Snr. into a a great deal of trouble after independence). They also expressed considerable admiration for neighbouring Tanzania, where Julius Nyrere’s anti-tribalism and linguistic reforms were far more successful than his socialist economic policies.

More about how Nyrere’s approach to independence differed from that of other post-colonial leaders can be seen here, but the following excerpt from it provides a neat explanation of his achievement:

‘Tanzania distinguishes itself from its regional neighbors in many ways, one of which is its political and civil peace. Uganda lacks unity and has been characterized for years by internal strife and civil war. The current situation in Kenya demonstrates that Tanzania's neighbor to the north deals with its share of unrest. The repeated story in most all of independent Africa is one of civil conflict and tribalism. Tanzania should be no different. With its nearly 130 different tribes, the country of Tanzania could be riddled by the same kind of tribalism, but it is not. This is in large part to the work of Julius Nyerere.

‘Nyerere made a number of strategic moves that have provided Tanzania with political stability. The most important of these was to establish a Tanzanian national identity. Nyerere did this primarily by leading the nation to adopt Swahili, a native Tanzanian language, as the country's national language. Swahili gave Tanzanians a distinctly African identity, distancing them from the colonial powers whose rule had just recently been removed. Unlike the language of English (the administrative language under the British protectorate), Swahili was something indigenous.

‘Nyerere's policy of socialized education was the means of disseminating the language to the whole nation, but it was already widely used throughout the country before it was ever taught. Swahili would not be simply a regional language; it would become the national language of education and commerce, and for many, the language of daily life.... Part of being Tanzanian became speaking Swahili, so the language served to unify a tribally diverse nation.

‘Since the decade of independence (1960's), Africa has become known for civil strife rooted in tribalism. One tribe wrestles for political power over another, and a country's democratic system becomes the stage for inter-tribal warfare. Tanzania has avoided much of this because of the purposeful leadership of Nyerere to develop a truly national identity.’

Kenya holiday reading

One of my more childish habits is to take books on holiday that vaguely relate to the location – so I read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin on a Greek island and Death on the Nile while cruising along the Nile in a paddle steamer very similar to the one in the film.

We’ve just got back from a couple of weeks in Kenya, where the obvious book to take was Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father.

Apart from being a fascinating and well-written story, it had the unexpected bonus of prompting staff in the game lodges to engage me in conversation about the new president. The pride of Kenyans in Obama’s success is palpable and I can’t imagine that I'd have learnt about this or about how the Luo, his father’s tribe, are regarded by those from other tribes, if I’d been reading something else.

Nor would I have learnt from one of my hosts which nationality of visitors he regarded as the most difficult - where 'difficulty' was defined as their insisting on getting out of his Land Rover to be photographed with (highly dangerous) buffalo. When he told them they were breaking the most important rule of all and asked them to get back into the vehicle for their own safety, they refused by saying "we've come here to see the animals, not you."

News of their misconduct quickly reached the game wardens, who came to the guide's rescue by rounding up the tourists and depositing them on the first plane back to Nairobi.

This has provided me with a new dinner party quiz game, which is to invite people to guess which country they came from. Visitors to the blog are welcome to join in by adding their own suggestions, though I haven't yet decided whether or not to make the answer available to a wider public!