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Saturday, September 13, 2008

Obama, Reagan, and What We Teach Our Kids

Flying Tomato switched her garden hat for English instructor's cap to discuss how Senator Barack Obama's superior communication skills should be viewed as an asset for leadership of the free world, not a liability. When we send our President to meet with foreign leaders to represent our interests, we should want to send the strongest communicator, someone who can make clear where we stand but also listen and relate to the others at the table. A president who speaks well is better equipped to rally the American people and the world to solve national and global problems. You can't lead without effective communication.

I find that message reinforced as I attend the annual convention of the Speech Communication Association of South Dakota in Yankton this weekend. Even though I'm a couple years out now from teaching speech, coaching interp and debate, and directing plays, I still judge lots of speech and drama contests and manage DSU's interp invitational. I thus enjoy coming to the SCASD convention every September to reconnect with teachers and coaches to find out what's going on in their classrooms and in the many activities they direct.

While I am treasurer of the SCASD, I am not authorized to endorse Obama on behalf of the organization. However, as a citizen in his twentieth year of working in some form or other in teaching the art of communication, I can say that criticizing Obama or any candidate for having great oratorical skills contradicts the principles the SCASD was founded to uphold. We—not just the SCASD,but all teachers, all parents—push our kids to be good communicators. Baby's first word is a momentous occasion. We thrill to our toddlers' mastering the recitation of their ABCs and learning to read Good Night, Moon aloud. We tell our kids, "Speak up!" and "Don't mumble!"—that's teaching good communication. Even when we say, "Be quiet a moment!" "Listen to your father!"—that's still communication. (Remember, communication is always an interactive event, involving sending and receiving, speaking and listening.)

One of the first activities our kindergarten teachers have our kids do is Show and Tell: that's public speaking. We suffuse the curriculum with communication activities: for example, we expect students to give oral reports in history class, create posters and demonstrations in biology and chemistry, conduct group projects in math (that takes all sorts of communication, negotiation, and verbal leadership), and write essays all across the curriculum. Communication is more central to what we teach our kids than any other academic discipline. (Consider: how often do we teach algebra in the English classroom, or music in government class, or health in art class?)

We integrate communication in our education system because we know our kids have to communicate to succeed as adults. Getting almost any job hinges on a communication event: an interview. Communicate with intelligence and confidence, and you get work. Effectively represent your views through public statements, letters to the editor, comments at commission meetings, maybe even blogs, and you have a better chance of convincing your neighbors and your elected officials to supports actions you think will help your community. Speak rudely or sloppily or fail to communicate your understanding of a problem or process (or the Bush Doctrine), and you put yourself at a disadvantage in getting people to hire you, trust you, or follow you.

Yet after trying to teach our kids how important it is to communicate well, we are going through an election year where people turn "good speech" and "gifted orator" into insults.

Ronald Reagan made good speeches. Almost every observer, Republican, Democrat, or in between, will acknowledge that Reagan's ability to communicate was an asset to this country. He could rally the country, talk tough, and negotiate. Calling Reagan "The Great Communicator" is no insult.

We should hold up all great communicators as examples our children should follow. To mock any person—Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, or the local debate team captain—for being able to communicate well undermines a vital message that folks like my friends in the SCASD and all responsible parents teach our kids every day: you've got to communicate effectively to get things done.


  1. But, my friend, you must remember that Adolf Hitler was also a master communicator as well!

    Not saying the candidates are Hitler-esque, BUT pretty delivery does not a good leader make.

  2. Jackrabit1, as someone who makes his living in communication, you know as well as I that communication is much more than pretty delivery. Hitler wasn't communicating; he was demagoguing, deceiving, hypnotizing, whatever. I'm talking about the complete communication package: speaking clearly and confidently, listening attentively and empathetically, being able to understand other points of view, negotiate, and come to agreements. You can't be a leader a leader if you can't communicate.

  3. What is the Bush doctrine? I'd never heard of it until today. So I googled it. Here is a link that explains it -- I guess.

  4. I mistrust people with overly developed communication skills often at the expense of knowledge or skill level, especially when the audience refuses to think critically. It's painful to watch Palin.

  5. But Hitler also had people wrapped around his finger thanks to his oratory.

    A common tactic (and if you don't believe me, ask Mike Schliessman or Laurie Haleta at SDSU), Hitler would keep the crowds penned up for hours. They'd get hot, tired, hungry and just plain miserable. Then ol Adolf would come out like gangbusters, like some rock star, and touch on their feelings and twist them into his message.

    I don't think the tactics are much different that what McCain and Obama are pulling, in terms of twisting on their follower's emotions. But smart people should be able to see through that smokescreen and say "Where are your issues?"

    As I said before... pretty oratory does not an effective or good leader make.

  6. Wow... great communicator? Have you heard this man speak without a teleprompter? He spurts out more "uh's" and "um's" and "ah's" than the pimply-faced kid that fills my order at the Burger-King drive-thru. I'll give him this... He is a splendid reader... a testament to our fine public school systems... you know, the one's that his children DO NOT ATTEND. And caheidelberger... listening attentively? empathy? understand other points of view? Who have you been listening to? Here is a great quote from an equally great speaker, someone who was able to put two cognitive thoughts together without the aid of a teleprompter:
    "Never kick a fresh turd on a hot day" Harry Truman. Sir, you have been kicking this turd around long enough...

  7. Jackrabit1, enough with Hitler and pretty oratory. Reread: I'm referring to the full package of communication abilities: listening, negotiating, coming to common understanding.

    And Anon, I've been listening to Obama himself talking about how to govern, how to understand others, recognize other points of view, and bring communities together. Who've you been listening to, Sarah Palin?

  8. We had all best listen to each player -- Obama, Biden, McCain, and Palin -- in the short time that remains before the election.

  9. Honestly, I’m stunned to find people describing Barack Obama as a “gifted orator,” despite the fact that his oratorical prowess surfaces only when he is using a teleprompter. In a recent post, I highlighted a media interview during which Obama used variations of the word, “Uhh,” a total of 30 times during the interview that lasted two minutes and 47 seconds. That’s almost 10 times per minute!


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