The Demagoguery Dimension

It happens every so often, after I have finished conducting a presentation training session with a number of clients. After the first post-training cocktail has been consumed, one of my student's will meekly put forth this question in hushed, apologetic tones:

"TJ, what do you think of Adolph Hitler as a public speaker?"

At first blush, it is hard to think of Hitler in any terms other than psychopathic mass murderer and the personification of evil. In fact to speak of Hitler under any circumstances other than across-the-board denunciation is seen at best as insensitive and at worst as NAZI sympathy - something most people, me included, don't want to be a part of.

However, I do believe you can take a scholarly assessment of Hitler's rhetorical skills without minimizing his blight on mankind. So I will try (but please no letters that I am "praising Hitler").

To look at Hitler's skill as a public speaker is especially intriguing in that is was seemingly his sole source for his rise to power. Unlike other politicians before or since, Hitler had no other obvious strengths to draw upon.

Traditional power sources for politicians are as follows: wealth, charm, good looks (including height), family connections, academic credentials, elite education, erudition, charm, high military rank, business success, and other world (especially athletic) success.

Hitler had none of the traditional political assets. Not one.

He had one strength only: public speaking.

For anyone interested in analyzing Hitler as a speaker in his prime, I would recommend that you view Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will - this classic film features numerous Hitler speeches made at the 1934 Nuremberg rallies.

As a speaker, Hitler exhibited the following strengths:

  1. Pausing (though not captured in "Triumph," Hitler would build anticipation to his speech by pausing for as long as several minutes before starting an address.
  2. Grand arm and hand movements - Hitler communicated with every fiber in his body.
  3. Full vocal range - Hitler would speak softly, even whisper, and he would shout at full lung capacity.
  4. Tempo change - Hitler would speak slowly, but then build faster and faster until he was racing, almost out of control.
  5. Visual and concrete - Hitler spoke of concrete visual things, the country, the land, the people, and not mere abstractions.
  6. Avoiding the lectern - Often times, Hitler did not even use a lectern. He wanted his audience to have an unobstructed view of him. He wanted to seem courageous and as one who didn't need to hide behind a lectern or notes.
  7. Repetition - Hitler was highly repetitive, he fleshed out his concepts over and over again, never afraid of repeating himself. His audience had a firm understanding of his message when he was through.
  8. Narrow focus - Hitler always focused on a handful of themes in any speech; he didn't do long laundry lists.
  9. Eye contact - In most of his speeches, Hitler looked up to the stars or out at his audience, he did not look down at his notes often times eschewing notes altogether.
  10. Emotional Hitler never communicated with his audiences purely at an intellectual or abstract level; he always communicated at an intensely emotional level.

Again, I AM NOT ENDORSING NAZISM when I say this, but all of the above traits would serve any speaker in the 21st century well.

Of course Hitler spoke in the pre-television era, so his speaking style was crafted for the experience of huge crowds seeing him from great distances. In that situation, his yelling and screaming "worked" in the sense that it created a favorable reaction with his audience. In today's close-up television world, Hitler's extreme style of yelling does not work for TV audiences (think Howard Dean Scream). But Hitler's other strengths as a speaker remain relevant today.

Hitler went to great extremes to appear as though he weren't image conscious. He wore what appeared to be a lowly corporal's uniform throughout his reign of terror, never wearing more than a couple of medals. He was short, pudgy, poorly dressed with a bad haircut and an odd little mustache. Yet, he still went to great lengths to manage certain aspects of his image while speaking. Although he was severely nearsighted, Hitler never wore glasses when speaking in public. He sensed that he would seem less like a leader to people if he had to hide behind glasses.

So is my message that you should imitate and be more like Hitler? NO. NO. NO.

The lesson here is that public speaking, the power to move people to action through the spoken word, was and is still the most potent form of power in the world for good and evil. Those who want to accomplish good things for their country, community, company, service club, or even just their own career need to realize this force and use it accordingly.


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