Here's why Inżynier Mamoń was right about Barack Obama

Here's why Inżynier Mamoń was right about Barack Obama

Here's why Inżynier Mamoń was right about Barack Obama

With Barack Obama's recent visit to Poland, I am yet again reminded of his address delivered two years ago, in Warsaw (4 June 2014), for the 25th Anniversary of the Freedom Day. In addition to being a very interesting piece of speech-writing, its rich canvas of shades and colours can now be seen in a different light.
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Great public speaking is not something one comes across very often, even in today's age of universal access to global communication platforms, the TEDs, Wikipedias and YouTubes of this world. Even today, true greatness and charisma in public roles, especially before large audiences, is extremely rare. 

My fascination with the art and science of public speaking has its roots nearly two decades ago. I started, inevitably, with a heavily theoretical overview of the great masters of the ancient world, only to proceed to the study of political and military rhetoric on display over centuries. Later, my interest shifted to the towering figures of the Anglo-Saxon world. Exploring the various subtexts of the most iconic public speeches, delivered at critical moments in history, has kindled additional curiosity for biographies, including those of Napoleon, Jefferson, Hitler, Stalin, Churchill, Einstein, Kennedy, Thatcher, Clinton, Blair, as well as global business icons, most notably Steve Jobs, especially in contrast with his Silicon Valley peers.

I remember very vividly listening to Tony Blair's speeches at my English friend's rented apartment in Kraków, opposite the Wawel Hill, early on at university. Blair’s style was unique, both by comparison and as a standalone figure. As Prime Minister, his political legacy aside, he certainly had enough public-speaking charisma to attract a variety of creative film incarnations, including the light-hearted 'Love actually' with Hugh Grant or Michael Sheen's captivating portrayal in 'The Queen'. His most memorable speeches showed meticulous attention to detail, intuitive understanding of public sentiment, spiced up with his natural dramatic panache.


The 'unobvious' gene

In studying public speaking, I have always been particularly interested in researching the 'unbovious' types, like Steve Jobs, who didn't have the usual trove of qualities one would instinctively associate with great speakers. He was nowhere near as polished or sophisticated as Blair. Quite the opposite, in fact. He had a somewhat irritating pitch of voice, hilariously abused all sorts of positive adjectives when talking about his products and services and made rather peculiar (albeit very consistent!) choices of stage dress code, which over the years, became an intrinsic part of a complex brand-building process. To make matters worse, he notoriously loved to reach for one of those mineral water bottles one would associate with cyclists (at best) and early childhood (at worst). Last but not least, he moved about whatever stage he was on rather clumsily, leaving all sorts of gestures, scratches and postures for his audiences to enjoy. And yet, he clearly stands out as perhaps the No.1 business speaker of the 21st century. And rightly so.

A much closer study of his legacy reveals he had a set of very rare skills, which, combined with uncommonly sharp intuition and understanding of his audiences, made him create a powerful imprint on the world stage, with a style of his own – one so powerful that in a relatively short period of time he has bred entire generations of followers, imitators, trainers, public speakers and coaches who never seem to tire of referring to him, with utmost reverence, in their training material.


Enter Barack Obama


President Barack Obama represents the same, extremely rare combination of intellect and intuition. When he won his first term in office in 2008, in a highly innovative and, without a shadow of a doubt, fascinating campaign, the word 'change' stood out prominently in almost every single carefully-crafted speech he gave. I am yet to read a proper book dedicated specifically to the style of his speeches, in particular, the tactics of employing words in the service of political goals.

Interestingly enough, both the presidential and the parliamentary elections in Poland, in 2015, revealed a careful (and by careful, I mean verging of plagiarism) study of the 2008 Obama campaign. The original campaign was in fact so sophisticated in its architecture and understanding of the key public sentiments, that, even when grafted to a very different socio-cultural and political setting, proved equally (if not more) successful. The lessons that the conservative (flatterring as the term may sound, under the current circumstances) Law and Justice (PiS) drew from Obama's 2008 chessboard proved to be a game-changer in Poland, nearly a decade later! However, the intellectual calibre of the people brought to power in the 2008 elections in the US and the 2015 elections in Poland stand no comparison. 

And yet, as history would have it (or destiny, as some like to believe), presidential elections are outcomes of infinitely complex variables stretching between the two perennial poles of reason and emotion. The sheer fact that Americans would have elected George W. Bush twice and are now likely to give so many of their votes to Donald Trump says almost too much about its voters. Having said that, in terms of pure rhetorical class, intellect and sophistication, Barrack Obama stands out as the exact opposite of the president who preceded him, while any comprehensive categorization of Donald Trump may in the end require a planet of his own. And yet, one is likely to follow in the footsteps of the other, as decided by the very same society in a relatively short period of time. If you have ever felt yoy needed a testimony to the fundamental imperfection of democracy as a political system, here you have it, in a glaringly obvious juxtaposition.


"Aż dziw bierze, że nie wzorują się na zagranicznych..."

The above heading is a quote from an iconic Polish 1970 comedy entitled "Rejs" ("A Cruise Trip"). In one of the film's characteristically static scenes, its 'worldly' protagonist, Inżynier Mamoń, provides unfavourable examples of how Polish films (and acting styles) differ from their foreign counterparts. The scene is an intelligently-crafted (albeit, reputedly improvised) mockery of public perceptions, going back to the era when, for the majority of Poles, the word 'foreign' simply meant better, especially in consumer-market terms. This phenomenon has held a powerful grip on the public imagination for at least half a century, influencing almost every sphere of public life. It is, in fact, one of the many factors why Poles still feel more confident in the 'follower' rather than 'leader' roles - particularly in economic and technological terms. There is no doubt that this nation has all it takes to create true innovation and thought leadership once it overcomes some of its deep-rooted, ancient deamons and develops a clear and unobstructed focus on the present, and more importantly, the future.

Speaking of the present, almost 50 years after the release of 'Rejs', I was once again reminded of this hilarious scene, while listening to the long-awaited speech by Barack Obama in Warsaw, on 4 June 2014. It was a formal address on the occasion of the 25th Anniversary of the Freedom Day (Dzień Wolności i Praw Obywatelskich) and, while powerful as a public speech in its own right, it was also a deeply ironic reminder that as far as political-speaking skills go, the film's opinionated protagonist (Inżynier Mamoń) was actually right. All of the front-line politicians of the era (right, left and centre) simply paled in comparison with the way Barrack Obama delivered his 'story of Poland', whether one looks at delivery style, personal charisma, structural sophistication, intelligent balancing between drama and humour, ability to inspire and fill with pride while avoiding pretentiousness and cheap emotional mimicry, and so many other factors...  

Two years later, unsurprisingly, this calibre of political class is still nowhere to be found, despite the dramatic shift in power in late 2015. Obama’s public-speaking charisma is a combination of multiple skills and determinants. Here's only a few of those:


  • ‘THE PRESENCE’: One of the most difficult things to convey in public speaking roles is genuine charisma, the kind of inner peace and natural confidence that translates directly to the general impression a speaker makes, one of composure, a strong sense of tranquillity even, without compromising rhythm and dynamics. Barack Obama has an uncanny ability to switch between registers, go from serious (and formal) to light-hearted and casual with perfect ease. In doing so, most of the time, his delivery feels natural and unforced.
  • 'THE VOICE': Both the pitch of his voice, the natural-sounding scale of his intonation and his ability to bring silence and pauses to his advantage, command trust, even a sense of authority, almost independent of his office.
  • 'THE RAPPORT': the aforementioned interplay of serious vs. casual truly makes Obama a great communicator. Full stop. In communicating to a variety of audiences, he succeeds in establishing just the right level of formality to make himself likeable and honest-sounding. There are many ingredients of this approach, however, perhaps the most important one is the fact that he gives his complete attention to whoever he is talking to at any given moment in time, which translates to both personalized content and body language.

The address delivered in Warsaw in 2014 lasted 21 minutes. Definitely not very long, given the occasion, but not short either. The full text of the speech is available on the White House website. The White House also makes it available in video format (White House YouTube channel).

Characteristically for Obama, his Warsaw speech is so packed with metaphors and iconic references that it reads almost like a film plot. The imagery employed is so vivid that his audiences have little choice but to follow the emotional sequence of the story he wants to paint before them.

The colours on a story canvas

Obama starts his speech like a rockstar would, before a concert ('Hello Warsaw'), only to proceed to a formal welcome ('Mr. President, Mr. Prime Minister, etc.). He then immediately interrupts the formal train of thought with a highly evocative interjection ('including the man who jumped that shipyard wall to lead a strike that became a movement, the prisoner turned president who transformed this nation'). Think about it for a while: 'prisoner turned president' - how powerful is that for the first lines of a speech?

His next step is to establish a special rapport with his audience, which, in this particular case, is achieved by introducing a simple, yet powerful sentence ('I bring with me the greetings and friendship of the American people - and of my hometown of Chicago, home to so many proud Polish Americans'). In this sentence he not only puts himself in the position of a friend, a messenger, indeed, someone sharing the same roots with his audience, but positions himself much closer to his audience, along a number of carefully chosen categories:

  • location (he explores similarities and common roots with Chicago, incl. references to language)
  • culture & tradition (parade in Chicago, Saint Stanislaus Kostka, Constitution Day)
  • cuisine (kielbasa and pierogies)

only to close with the powerful 'we’re all a little bit Polish for that day. So being here with you, it feels like home'.

The speech continues to a very interesting interplay of static and dynamic imagery, creating a rich canvas of colours, emotions, evocative symbols and iconic socio-cultural references, accentuated with a pointed sense of when it is best to introduce dramatic shifts in time. It's a flattering story of Poles portrayed as history's grand witnesses, filled with proud, inspired and unwavering collective choices made by a repressed society, across centuries, in the face of relentless adversities. In the process, Obama makes references to dozens of countries in the region, giving Poland the symbolic role of a leader, emphasizing integrity and wisdom of the country's ethical legacy. Listeners are exposed to images of crowd filling the streets in protest, people cutting barbed wire, beatings, bullets, martial law and climbing border walls, candles lit in windows - small steps leading to world-changing events: 'We must never forget that the spark for so much of this revolutionary change, this blossoming of hope, was lit by you, the people of Poland'.

Obamas story of Poland is one of heroism and global solidarity. He mentions 'The heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto who refused to go without a fight.' and 'The Free Poles at Normandy and the Poles of the Home Army who - even as this city was reduced to rubble - waged a heroic uprising'. Through a series of ideas meant to illustrate the general message of perseverence and progress, Obama adds the very words that would achieve a special dimension of historic significance only two years later: 'Here we see an independent judiciary working to uphold the rule of law. Here in Poland we see a vibrant press and a growing civil society that holds leaders accountable -- because governments exist to lift up their people, not to hold them down"'


History's petty little ironies

On 8 July 2016, in a statement during the NATO Summit in Warsaw, President Obama included the following criticism (in a dignified and diplomatically respectful, albeit unequivocally strong way):

'And it's in that spirit that I expressed to President Duda our concerns over certain actions and the impasse around the Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal.  I insisted that we are very respectful of Poland's sovereignty, and I recognize that Parliament is working on legislation to take some important steps, but more work needs to be done.  And as your friend and ally, we've urged all parties to work together to sustain Poland’s democratic institutions.  That’s what make us democracies -- not just by the words written in constitutions, or in the fact that we vote in elections -- but the institutions we depend upon every day, such as rule of law, independent judiciaries, and a free press.  These are, I know, values that the President cares about. These are values that are at the heart of our alliance, which was founded, in the words of the North Atlantic Treaty, “on the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law.”'

These words constitute almost a mirror-image contradiction of his flattering message from only two years ago. In both addresses, rule of law, independent judiciaries, and a free press were the true linchpins of Poland's democratic success and the very backbone on which the White House staff have built Obama's entire speech for Poland's 25th Anniversary as a free state.


The little things that aren't

On 31 March 2016 I got a short and spontaneous interpreting assignment. Following a quick and rather spontaneous phonecall, I drove to Tarnów's market square (a city 90km east of Kraków) for a small ceremony during the visit of the U.S. Army troops from the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, who were moving across Poland as part of the so-called “Dragoon Ride II". After they arrived and set up their military equipment on display, they were officially greeted by the U.S. Consul General and the Mayor of Tarnów, among others. The short ceremony was a relaxed and very friendly one, followed by an invitation to take a closer look at the military equipment and talk to the very friendly and smiling soldiers. After the ceremony, I saw the Consul again, on his way to the car, about to leave back to Kraków. He smiled and said: 'Do you need a ride or something?' This question, from a high diplomatic corpse official I barely know, came literally minutes after I was approached by a local, middle-aged woman in the street, who must have felt she simply had to share her impressions with someone. She was almost overwhelmed with Americans' friendly and approachable manner. Needless to say, in the spirit of Inżynier Mamoń, she couldn't resist the comparison to the formal sadness and seriousness, customarily befitting the Polish soldiers present at the very same ceremony.

Success, in leadership and public speaking alike, consists of many ingredients. It takes humility (see the CNN video below), genuine strength, charisma, and a little dose of healthy distance to oneself and reality at large (see Jimmy Fallon's "‪'Slow Jam the News' with President Obama" video above), a quality so fiercely lacking in Poland's contemporary political setting.




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