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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Public rhetoric and the Wimbledon effect

Barack Obama is clearly a brilliant public communicator - better than Hilary Clinton, almost as good as Bill - but even in this speech he has not conquered the central problem of using a conference teleprompter, which I call the Wimbledon effect. He's using two transparent screens placed either side of him like so. This means he is always looking either to the left or to the right, never straight ahead, much like the crowd at Wimbledon. His gaze moves from left to right and back again regularly, apparently to talk directly to the crowd but actually to make sure that he delivers every word of this highly nuanced speech perfectly. It has the effect of making him seem relaxed, which is what's required of a TV performance, and after all this is what this is, but maybe it lacks drama. There are no climaxes, no halts apparently to let the idea sink in but actually devised to allow the speaker to organise himself. I know this is neither a fair nor an appropriate comparison but it's worth looking at it next to Martin Luther King's Lincoln Memorial speech. King looks down at his text, up at the sky, down at the crowd, then back to his text and so on. It's only when he has got near the end and he's clearly back to a familiar riff about "the mountains and molehills of Mississippi" that he seems to abandon the lectern and let fly like a great soloist.