Jerry Weissman: Obama’s Unwords Begone

Barack Obama, whose smooth, articulate delivery style in his major speeches has been lauded by friend and foe alike, has also been derided by friend and foe alike for his tendency to sputter “unwords”–“ums” and “ahs”–during his answers in extemporaneous press conferences. In my previous blog on the subject, you read a serious online commentary and saw a comic television mash-up of Obama’s sputtering.

One of the major factors for the sharp differences in his cadence is his use of the teleprompter. Because of his diligent attention to policy as well as to rhetorical detail, Obama uses the teleprompter to read his major speeches verbatim. By freeing his mind from having to think about what to say, he can focus on how to say it–which he does exceedingly well.

Moreover, the two teleprompter panels cause him to swing back and forth, the swings cause him to pause between his phrases, and the pauses inhibit his unwords. But when he speaks extemporaneously, his words, fueled by his deep knowledge and dynamic delivery, come pouring out with far fewer pauses. Unbroken strings of words inhibit thinking, and so the mind, in search of processing time, interrupts the word strings with “ums” and “ahs.” The problem is compounded by the insertion of unnecessary “ands” which make the word strings longer, further inhibit thinking, and cause even more unwords.

All of that changed in Obama’s fifth and latest press conference last week. After his usual smooth reading of his opening remarks from a teleprompter, he opened the floor to reporters’ questions. In his response to the very first question, his cadence was as smooth as it was in his remarks; almost as if his answers were on the teleprompter–which they were not. Punctuating his phrases and pausing frequently, he produced his signature rhythmic pattern.

To appreciate the full power of Obama’s almost musical cadence, listen to one of his speeches with your eyes closed and hear how he parses his words. (By the way, there is now a dedicated website of his major speeches.) During this latest press conference, his parsing pattern significantly diminished the unwords in his answers–until he responded to a question from Chuck Todd of NBC News.

Tomorrow’s post will examine that exchange in detail.


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