Michelle Obama
Photo: Getty Images

ADVICE

Be more Michelle

The former First Lady manages to be both commanding and comfortable. Viv Groskop examines how she does it

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By Viv Groskop on

Happy high status is the single most important thing about being a strong public speaker. If you’re genuinely happy high status, it’s very hard to have any interaction that will not be well received by the audience, whether it’s one person in an informal meeting or a crowd of fifty thousand at a massive rally. Happy high status reads up close. And it reads at a vast distance. The camera picks it up instantly. It’s a transmission of energy, trust and enthusiasm: ‘I see you. I don’t judge you.’ (‘You want a cocktail? Have a cocktail! It doesn’t matter that I’m not your waiter!’) But, most importantly, it’s an inside job.

It’s not about learning how to hold your body, project your voice, plant your feet or align your spine (although we should focus on all those things too because they all matter). It’s about the most important first principle of how you present yourself to the world: how you feel inside yourself. Are you generally comfortable with who you are, concealing nothing and ready for anything, including being mistaken for a wait- person? Because that is exactly who Michelle Obama is. Or, rather, it’s who she learned to be. This quality can’t be faked. But it can be acquired, practised and improved upon.

Very close to charisma, it’s true that some people have it naturally. They are the people we all gravitate towards in social situations because they make us feel comfortable. They tend to have three qualities: they’re as interested in us as in themselves; they don’t take anything personally; and they have a knack for making everything seem easy and natural. Think about that cocktail interaction again. It’s really not that big a deal. And why wouldn’t you get a drink at a party for someone? What else are you going to do? Turn around and say, ‘Don’t you know who I am? Get your own cocktail’? Of course you have to do the right thing, if you’re any kind of a good person. Great speakers are made not born.

There is plenty of evidence that Michelle Obama worked hard to get to this level of confidence. And the fact that she worked at it is a good thing because it gives us all hope. Sure, she has the natural attributes of a happy high status person, but she also has the attributes of the people who resist this role: an inbuilt cynicism, a little bit of aloofness, a dose of eye-rolling. (Come on. We’ve all done it.) She even resisted the status of First Lady for a long time before embracing it and, even then, was not initially happy in the role, taking a while to settle into her own version of it.

It’s a well-documented fact that she questioned her husband’s choice of political career for some time, and that, of the two of them, she was the more reluctant about either of them seeking high office. Many have remarked that it’s this quality that marks her out as the sort of person who would make a great politician: she actually resists power for its own sake and was wary of how it would change her husband. She has said many times that she would never go into politics. And yet she more or less has. It’s like the quote from Twelfth Night: ‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.’ To be happy high status in the way Michelle Obama has become is to be comfortable with being given greatness, whether you want it or not.

There is plenty of evidence that Michelle Obama worked hard to get to this level of confidence. And the fact that she worked at it is a good thing because it gives us all hope

In some ways, this is a fantastic metaphor for what a sudden public- speaking opportunity can feel like when you’re not expecting it or didn’t ask for it: greatness is being thrust upon you. How you deal with the weight of that greatness is all to do with whether you can cope with being happy and high status at the same time.

It’s one thing to accept high status when it means ‘at the top of the hierarchy’. Think of political leaders (and queens) who occupy their role with dignity and gravitas. It’s quite another to be happy and relaxed about it so that others accept your status but almost don’t think about it, let alone feel intimidated by it. This is a real skill. As I’ve mentioned, not everyone who is high status is happy high status.

And, to be fair, many high-status people manage to be convincing and effective public speakers while leveraging their status and without doing the inner work. Look at Donald Trump. He is high status, but he is not happy high status. If you mistake him for a cocktail waiter, you are going to die. And yet he does have a presence as a public speaker: many people find his speeches compelling and many have voted for him on the strength of them. And yet. His speaking does not have true conviction or emotion. It uses rhetorical tricks and catchphrases (‘Build a wall!’) instead of aiming for connection and empathy. He makes the most of being high status. But think what he could achieve if he were happy high status. (Actually don’t think about that. It’s never going to happen.)

Happy high status is a state of mind that is not easy to achieve. Not even Michelle Obama just dropped naturally into it. In the early days of Barack Obama’s life as a United States senator in 2005, two years before he announced his candidacy for the presidency, Michelle Obama rolled her eyes at a reporter at an event and said, ‘Maybe one day he will do something to warrant all this.’ That is not a happy high status thing to say. It’s a very passive-aggressive thing to say. (Though it’s also funny. Kudos.)

But as Michelle Obama reduced her job as a hospitals executive to one day a week while her husband pounded the campaign trail, she began to learn how to match up to the status of First Lady and to stop saying things that would undercut her or her husband’s status. She learned to be comfortable – happy – with the status. This meant that when she came to speak, she could do so from the heart and not be afraid of being exposed in any way. She would not have to learn to rely on tricks and crowd manipulation. She would be able to say what she wanted to say and people would accept it and listen. (Though not always agree. But that’s part of the happy bit of high status: you’re happy for other people to sit with their views. You don’t have to convince everyone. You’re OK with any response, even if it’s negative.)

The kind of transformation Michelle Obama effected while in training to be First Lady was all about balancing the two sides of happy high status. The high status bit means no undermining quips that indicate you’re not too comfortable in a position of power. It means being comfortable when others expect you to walk in front of them. It means stepping up to take decisions the second they are required. The happy bit means doing it in a stress-free, relaxed way, as if this is the most natural thing in the world to you.

@VivGroskop

This is an exclusive extract from How to Own the Room by Viv Groskop. Out now, £16.99, Penguin.

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