What is the role of gender in public speaking? It’s an incredibly complex question, and one about which I’ve posted before. Recently, a couple of INSEAD and NYU professors teamed up to illustrate a particularly vexed version of this question: the role of gender in the recent debates and election for the American president.
They asked, what if Trump and Clinton switched genders? How would that affect our perception of the debate and indeed the two candidates? Would it have changed anyone’s mind? And what can we learn from that instance of gender-bending – is anything about our unconscious attitudes towards women and men revealed?
Maria Guadalupe and Joe Salvatore teamed up with two actors, Rachel Whorton and Darryl Embry, who played Brenda King (female Trump) and Jonathan Gordon (male Clinton), respectively. The professors coached the actors to play out three selections from the debates, using Trump’s and Clinton’s gestures and body language as closely as possible.
I highly recommend watching the theatre piece when a planned film of it is completed. For now, you have to make the best of a brief clip from a rehearsal. What’s immediately apparent from even that short excerpt is the fussiness and evasiveness of Gordon’s manner, and, in contrast, the anger and clarity of King’s. Apparently, a number of the audience members said, in discussion after the show, “Now I understand why Trump won.”
Watching the clip, you realize that someone evincing strong emotion, even when it’s anger – a negative emotion – is much clearer and more powerful than someone trying to be reasonable.
There are lessons for speakers here – starting with the idea that focusing a strong emotion is charismatic and engaging for an audience even if it doesn’t agree with the content you’re expressing. And second, that a negative emotion like anger is likely to overshadow an attempt to be likable. Despite the smiling and the reasonable comments, Gordon seems less impressive and less captivating than King.
The lesson, therefore, is less about gender than emotion. Switching roles simply allows us to eliminate some of what was at stake during the real debates – the historical nature of the race and the politics of the debates – and see the importance of the emotional subtext of the conversation. That’s usually very difficult to do. So this brilliant piece of theatre is unexpectedly helpful in showing the viewer the extent to which he or she typically reacts to the intent of a speaker as conveyed by attitude and body language, rather than what we think we’re hearing – the content.
I don’t think this bit of political drama reveals much about gender, in the end. Rather, it shows us the importance of emotion, clarity, and directness in political debate. In this way, Trump, as an outsider, was well served by the political moment and his own predilections. Clinton, on the other hand, came across as bureaucratic and evasive, two characteristics she could hardly hope would propel her into the White House. It was the wrong moment for a political pro, and the right moment for an amateur.