How the power players do it - by Fortune senior editor at large Patricia Sellers

Obama: New-style communicator

November 5, 2008: 3:54 PM ET

Barack Obama won the most resounding popular vote of any Democratic Presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. But you'd never know it by the tone of his victory speech. Did you notice? After loping on stage -- appearing more subdued than any President-elect in recent history, as ABC News' George Stephanopolous noted -- Obama spoke in a style that seems to me to parallel that of an ever-growing crop of corporate chiefs: modest and pragmatic, without the swagger we're all so tired of. Procter & Gamble's (PG) A.G. Lafley and Disney's (DIS) Bob Iger are two examples. (We'll see how credible Iger is when Disney reports earnings Thursday.)

As I watched last night, I couldn't stop thinking of what my friend, the actress/performance artist/playwright Anna Deavere Smith, has told me about Obama's style of communicating: "His cadence and rhythm suggests BOTH inspiration and practical task doing.  Some of his sentences are like lists. So there's a blend of the promise of greater things ahead but the clarity of tasks to do." Listen closely to Obama, and you'll hear him strike the last syllable of each sentence with an unusual beat that communicates assurance. "He is in fact, not overpromising," as Anna (who, incidentally, is in the stunning movie Rachel Getting Married, in theaters now) told me this morning.

Another smart take on Obama's speech patterns: "He enters that last syllable like a lion and leaves it like a lamb. And that's because, well, he's really merely stating the obvious and it would be unseemly to pound the gavel or make a fuss." This comes from a blogger named Grant McCracken, whom I don't know but claims to have received a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Chicago, taught at the Harvard Business School, and has done ethnography work for Campbell Soup (CPB) and Coca-Cola (KO). Obama's voice, McCracken notes, is a bit like Walter Cronkite -- who, remember, once was the most trusted person in America.

In times of crisis, such as now, leaders can either blare the alarm -- which might cause many to run for the hills. Or leaders can call, with modesty, for us to work together toward recovery. Our next president seems to be doing the latter. On on -- all together now.


P.S. Obama has reportedly chosen Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff. For great insight into the brilliant and complex Chicago Congressman, read this profile that my colleague Nina Easton, Fortune's Washington editor, did two years ago.

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