The Obama Test

If you have ever received any speaking-related training, it’s more than likely that you have been told at some point to ‘slow down’ and ‘vary your pitch’. At the 100th Monkey, we like to put a little bit of science behind these key vocal tips, with pace and pitch analysis of your voice. Slow down, let me hear you Studying the common traits of the great orators – of which history will certainly judge President Barack Obama as one – is hugely helpful for anyone wishing to improve as a speaker. The first trick you’ll learn is that when it comes to big speeches – especially big moments within the big speeches – good communicators use a very deliberate, slower pace of delivery. The average person speaks at 150-200 words per minute (wpm) in everyday conversation. Obama takes it down to 112 wpm during his best speeches. Martin Luther King talked at 92 wpm during the ‘I have a dream’ section of his 1963 speech, using long pauses to add to the sense of revelation in his every phrase. Steve Jobs, unveiling the iPhone in 2007, delivered the big bang moments at 94 wpm. The trick we use in our sessions to instil this lesson is very simple: we call it the Obama Test. We surreptitiously put a stop watch on you during a media interview, a presentation, or in delivering a statement. Then we can tell you how you measure up to the greats. The winner in two years of testing (i.e. the slowest speaker!) was at 140 wpm. The fastest (i.e. the loser!) pushed 350 words a minute. That’s six words a second. We told him what we tell many people – you have to give your audience time to hear what you have to say, to attach emotion to your words, to allow them to sink in. Otherwise, your messages will be at best diluted, at worst, lost entirely. Not to say that we must all, always speak slower. Variety is the key to all the vocal techniques, otherwise it sounds forced and inauthentic to the audience. But by consciously slowing down for the key moments, especially at the start of any talk, meeting or interview, the difference that can be witnessed is remarkable – a more considered speaker, with greater gravitas, poise and control. The voice is your instrument, don’t take it for granted The second crucial test of a speaker’s vocal skills is their spoken range, or ‘pitch’. Most people comprehend that in order to engage an audience they must avoid being monotone. But I’ve found coaching people to improve the variety of their pitch has always been one of the hardest elements to get through in a demonstrable and effective way. That is why a new pitch analysis app we are using in our training sessions – and the results it’s producing – so excite me. It is a simple set up. As a participant speaks on microphone, either in a mock presentation or media interview, we are recording their voice directly on to the software platform. We can then produce a visual read out – with a graph which has tracked the ups and downs of their voice – two important elements to improve the impact of your every spoken word:
  • The variety and range of notes in your spoken voice. Monotone voices only talk on 1-3 notes; professional broadcasters use 7-10.
  • Your patterns of speech and phrasing. In particular, trying to avoid the classic British trait of ‘declining inflections’ where speakers begin each sentence ‘high’ and slowly make their way down, ending ‘low’ (typically throwing the end of the sentence away and losing energy)
Now, I not saying that science completely wins over art in communication – there is a balance between the two. However we are increasingly finding that in a data age, these tools and tests compliment learning by giving a fantastically visual and clear picture of the hitherto rather complicated and difficult skill of pitching and pacing like a pro.