Matt Lewis

How Obama’s ‘uh’ moments hurt his leadership image

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Matt K. Lewis
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      Matt K. Lewis

      Matt K. Lewis is a senior contributor to The Daily Caller, and a contributing editor for The Week. He is a respected commentator on politics and cultural issues, and has been cited by major publications such as The Washington Post and The New York Times. Matt is from Myersville, MD and currently resides in Alexandria, VA. Follow Matt K. Lewis on Twitter <a>@mattklewis</a>.

During the GOP primary, Stephen Clouse, a recognized communications expert and speech coach pointed out to me Herman Cain’s high blink rate. This morning, I asked Clouse to give me his take on Wednesday night’s debate between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Interestingly, he pointed out Obama’s “ah’s” and “uhms” as a major problem:

I think their maybe one big thing that’s missing.  I have heard it said by key Democratic consultants, “People want to vote for someone who is smarter than them but doesn’t act like it.”  You and I know voters judge television on three levels visual, vocal quality and verbal.  The split screen visuals of President Obama looking down were devastating (remember the first visual judgement is posture, clothing, hair, face and then eyes).  However, the intellectual judgement takes place when you begin to speak.  In other words, how smart you are.  This is why the Left was so tough on President George W Bush.

When President Obama answered questions with an excessive use of “ah’s” and “uhms” (serious mistake for a professional speaker) and no enthusiasm his smartest guy in the room image took a major hit!  In fact, I told my wife, Ellen, the emperor had not clothes (intellectually speaking).  

When Mitt Romney answered the same questions there were no filler words, and he had belief and conviction in what he wanted to say.  Combining all of this with nearly 67 million viewers means new doubts are created in Obama’s ability to lead.

(Emphasis mine.)

Obama has had a lot of success over the years by ignoring warnings against using fillers like “uhm.” In fact, a few fillers can be endearing (as long as the leader is perceived as confident in other ways, that is.)

Rhetorical ability is vitally important for leaders — arguably as important as action and accomplishments. But when you live by the verbal sword, you die by the verbal sword. As the above video demonstrates, Obama’s frequent use of fillers served to reinforce the notion that he was unprepared and unsure. Juxtaposed with Romney’s much quicker and clearer speaking style, Obama’s “uhms” start to chip away at the previously-held notion that he was the most confident and “smartest guy in the room.”  (Note: I think Clouse is right in saying the debate created doubts. It wasn’t a slam dunk, but it may have opened the door — for the first time, really — into questioning Obama’s leadership ability.)

Obama’s poor performance was arguably more important than Romney’s good performance.