Obama and paralanguage: his words aside…


When he delivered his inaugural speech, Obama proved to be an expert at making eye contact in order to enthuse millions of people and played a lot with his intonation to convince them.

Barack Obama’s inaugural address today was his first opportunity to set the tone and share how he would lead his newly-formed government. In addressing his fellow Americans for the first time as president (against the backdrop of a severe recession marked by mass layoffs and foreclosures, as well as many other issues) it was paramount that Obama arouse hope and conveys an image of confidence.

The terms he used were essential to his speech. However, his non-verbal behaviors, or paralanguage, were just as important, if not more so, in order to get his point across. Research reveals that paralanguage conveys no less than 93% of the emotional meaning behind the lyrics. A crowd will react strongly to what they see, or to the intonation of the person speaking the words they hear. Everything from the speaker’s clothing, to the space between him and his audience, to the gestures he makes with his hands, his bearing, the expression of his face and his intonation, can make convey the message of a leader as he had wished or, on the contrary, go against him. While Obama took center stage, here’s what,

In general, leaders will adopt different nonverbal actions and behaviors depending on whether they are speaking to a crowd or facing a single person. For example, Obama used appropriate eye contact with people attending the debates between him and John McCain last fall. During the beginning of his speech today, however, he caught the attention of a large audience by speaking to people on the extreme left and right of the crowds, thus not focusing his gaze on places more specific or about specific people. It seemed like he cared more about establishing a close connection with the many millions of people who listened to and watched him outside the Washington Capitol than with viewers.


Although it is indeed difficult to excite millions of people whose whole takes up a lot of space, and despite the temptation, no doubt very strong for the President, to address the several millions of people glued to their television screens, Obama managed to hold the attention of the public facing him. He used his eye contact cleverly, gazing out at the entire crowd instead of looking only at a specific spot, or addressing primarily those placed closest to him; in adopting this attitude, he seemed to be fully aware of the enormity of the crowd who listened attentively to his words and his vision of things.

Besides, I paid attention to the gestures that Obama made with his hands. Paralanguage research has shown that a speaker will use more hand gestures than smiles in order to address a large crowd because they are more visible. Usually, leaders make gestures with their hands to express power and dominance. To highlight certain topics or key words, Obama rarely did, placing his hands most of the time in line with his body.

Instead of relying on the gestures he made with his hands, Obama chose his intonation as the most meaningful and effective nonverbal behavior. He frequently changed his intonation to match his message. The oath of office he took was not the strongest moment of his speech. Indeed, Obama began his statement too soon, and there were a few embarrassingly confused moments when he addressed Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts during the remainder of the oath. Nevertheless, the confident tone taken by Obama during his inauguration speech helped him to regain a feeling of mastery and gave great meaning to the terms he used.


Moreover, he succeeded in conveying a certain seriousness in a timely manner, for example when he mentioned all the difficulties and crises that the nation currently faces, from the weakness of the economy to the failures of certain schools, the high cost of medical care and the lack of political determination. Also, he spoke louder and sounded more confident and firm when he said he will tackle these difficulties and challenges. Conversely, he adopted a more serene and engaging tone as he promised to work closely with countries around the world.

I was also struck by the expressions on Obama’s face, or rather the rarity of these. He did not smile excessively during his inauguration speech, which was an appropriate and respectful reminder to us of the difficulty of the times we are living in now. He conveyed a strong optimism and a compelling perception of a better future, more through his intonation than through any other non-verbal behavior. As usual, he spoke his words eloquently. In particular, his intonation succeeded in getting his message across both to people who were on the ground in Washington and to people like me who watched the speech on television or via the Internet in all four corners of the world.

Obama’s inauguration speech was honest, motivational and inspirational all at the same time, three qualities necessary in the speech of a leader whose country is going through a period as difficult as that experienced by Americans today. I got the impression that the tone of his first address as President to American citizens was both serious and optimistic, fitting for the challenges ahead. When addressing his followers for the first time, and especially when the people he speaks to are preoccupied mostly with bad news and their dismay, a leader must show sincerity, sagacity, inspirational qualities and charisma.

By means of his paralanguage, Obama demonstrated to those who listened to or watched his speech that he was aware of the seriousness of the crises and challenges ahead, of the importance of communicating with our allies as well as with our enemies, and he revealed a certain confidence in his ability to lead, without being arrogant.

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