Obama's SOTU Body Language Showed Strength, Leadership, Experts Say
President Obama delivers his State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol.
Credit: White House Photo, Pete Souza

Actions speak louder than words. Last night, President Barack Obama seemed to put an optimistic sheen on the state of the union. But at some point, body movements and gestures kick in to cement a point in viewers’ minds. So what did Obama’s posture and gestures let us know that his words weren’t telling?

We asked two experts to weigh in. Karen Studd is a body language expert and associate professor of dance at George Mason University. Karen Kohn Bradley is a public speaking coach and the head of dance performance at the University of Maryland. Studd and Bradley watched the State of the Union and spoke via Skype during the speech.

Studd said she saw a shift in the way the president spoke, compared with last year’s address. “I saw much more strong effort, which is really about assertion, self-confidence and the will to overcome something and move forward – something which is different from the free flow and accommodating style I had associated with him before.”

Obama struck a successful balance between being optimistic and assertive, she added. “This year, I saw much less of the preacher and teacher, and much more of the leader,” Studd said.

Bradley said that Obama got to the message, and stuck with it: “Tonight, he really was the embodied leader — someone who is responsive and resilient and directed without being obnoxious about it. His body language sent a message that he was someone who puts his weight behind his words and really believes them.” That’s something she said some of the Republicans seeking to be the presidential nominee are lacking in their personal styles.

Two aspects of Obama’s speaking stylewerebrought forward in the address, Studd said. The first was that his phrasing emphasized the beginning and ending of sentences rather than hitting hardest in the middle – which gives his statements kind of an emphatic resolve. The other was that does a lot of gesturing on one side, then the other, then bringing both hands together – as if to show the ideas coming together and moving forward.

Bradley said that some of the Republicans in the room last night didn’t seem to be having such a good time as the president. “John Boehner seemed to be in some distress, and then after that he sort of sat back and looked like he was giving up.”

Obama’s style, she said, is ultimately adaptable. He tends to change his body language depending on his interlocutors. This year’s address, she said, was one of his best in terms of bringing his personal style to the message. “He’s come into his own. We’ve seen indications of this man before, but he really brought it together tonight.”

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