Donald Trump is one of those figures that politics churns up from time to time about whom few are half-hearted – he’s both strongly approved of and strongly disliked. His speech to the Republican faithful on Thursday night, accepting the nomination as their candidate for U.S. President, was vintage Trump, and provoked equally strong reactions on either side of the ledger, for and against.
For those who are students of public speaking in the world beyond politics, what lessons can we learn from Mr. Trump’s divisive speech and speaking style? Is there anything in his performance that executives and professional speakers can take away (and use to strengthen their own speaking styles)? Following are several tips that an analysis of Trump the speaker yield. They are intended to be non-partisan, so please don’t weigh in with partisan points on either side.
1.You can’t get and keep attention today without emotion. There was a time, perhaps, when business speakers could stay well on the reason side of the reason-emotion split. Indeed, in some past time you might have made a career as the Mr. Spock of the business world – all numbers and rationality and strategic planning.
That time is gone, if indeed it ever existed. Today, passion is the price of entry. Whether you’re passionate about design, like the late Steve Jobs, or energy, like Elon Musk, matters less than that you’re passionate about something.
Mr. Trump’s cyclonic passion put the other 16 or so Republican candidates to shame – and drove them out of the race. Most of them were still trying to get along as American political candidates have instinctively done in the past – leavening their indignation with a desire to attract as many voters as possible.
That even-handedness simply didn’t work against Mr. Trump’s firehose of anger.
2.But you have to focus that emotion. Mr. Trump’s charisma can be summed up in one word: focus. He’s always angry on stage, to the exclusion of other emotions. The result is extraordinarily charismatic. Most business people – and business speakers – have a to-do list of things they need to accomplish in their heads, and to-do lists are not charismatic.
Trump blew all the other candidates away, and electrified the party faithful on Thursday night, by sticking to anger. He began the speech with an angry admonition:
We will be a country of generosity and warmth. But we will also be a country of law and order.
Our Convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation. The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life. Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country.
And he ended his speech with a similar cry of triumphant anger:
Remember: All of the people telling you that you can’t have the country you want, are the same people that wouldn’t stand — I mean, they said Trump doesn’t have a chance of being here tonight. Not a chance! The same people. Oh, we love defeating those people, don’t we? Love it, love it, love it. No longer can we rely on those same people in politics and in the media, who will say anything to keep a rigged system in place. Instead, we must choose to Believe In America.
In between was a long list of all the wrongs he intends to right – each delivered with the trademark Trumpian angry indignation.
3.And your body language has to be consistent in supporting your (focused) message. Trump’s body language thoroughly supported his angry focus, even in its odder aspects. His smile is the false smile of an angry person, one that doesn’t reach his eyes. His chin is pointed slightly upward most of the time, an angry-tough-guy-don’t-mess-with-me stance. His eyes are narrowed to say “don’t try to get past me,” as well as because, no doubt, of the bright lights shining in them.
He periodically opens his arms wide, palms up, to say, “See, I’m for real. This anger is real. I’m not hiding anything. What you see is what you get.”
And his strangest gesture comes with the action of his right hand – but it’s nonetheless consistent with everything else. Find any YouTube clip of Mr. Trump speaking, and you’ll see the same ceaseless alternation between the admonishing forefinger (like a schoolteacher telling you you’re wrong) for his critics, and the circled-thumb-and-forefinger-OK gesture, which is his way of softening the forefinger of a moment before. He’s saying, in effect, to his audience – “those people, those horrible other people, are all wrong, but you and I are OK.”
He used these two gestures repeatedly on Thursday night as he scolded the rest of the world and signaled to the folks in the hall that they were OK.
I don’t recommend the right hand gestures to business speakers looking to up their game, but I do recommend the consistency and focus, and the openness.
4.Remember, you’re putting on a show. It’s a truism of life today that we’re all more distracted than ever. Mr. Trump’s background in reality TV sharpened his skills as an entertainer. He knows you have to commit fully. He knows that you have to keep it moving, with variety of pacing, volume, and delivery. And he knows that outrageousness sells. Instead of parsing his words carefully, like most politicians before him, and competing with him, he prefers to shoot from the hip and backpedal later. (I’ll retract that mixed metaphor later; for now I’ll let it stand.) Indeed, the biggest danger with the speech Thursday night was that it would seem tame by comparison with his other, less scripted efforts, because it was written out in advance and put on a teleprompter.
Business speakers with captive audiences would do well to remember that, while audiences may not literally be able to leave your speech in the middle, especially if an audience reports to you, nonetheless, they can surreptitiously check out via their mobile phones. Mr. Trump is keenly aware of the entertainment value of political speech – and he’s upped the ante on himself and everyone else accordingly.
5.Finally, you lose nothing by keeping it simple. Mr. Trump asserted again and again, as he listed all the wrongs he perceived with America today, that he was the one to fix them. He gave no details and offered no proof. He simply asserted that he was going to do it. It’s a valuable reminder to speakers everywhere that a speech is not the best format for detail. We in the audience simply can’t retain much in the way of specifics. And if you try to give us those, we’ll get lost and tune out. So take a page from Mr. Trump’s presentation and keep the details to a minimum. Keep it simple, and they’ll argue about you, perhaps but not about the rights and wrongs of your plan.
Mr. Trump has put some powerful body language and emotion together to create a compelling alternative for a large percentage of the populace to political business as usual. It remains to be seen whether or not he can persuade that percentage to pull the voting lever for him in November.
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