Can playing high status go over the top? Trump’s eagerly awaited speech had a number of technically good elements, but as a whole it was no stellar performance.
During the last few years at Toastmasters, a global organization devoted to developing public speaking and leadership skills, I have evaluated dozens if not hundreds of speeches and given structured feedback to speakers. Hence, analyzing Trump’s inaugural address felt like the most natural thing to do.
The intriguing question was: Trump is an excellent speaker but also an exceptionally contradictory person – how would he do in his first speech as president?
While the speech had a number of technically good elements, as a whole it was a disappointment. Here’s why.
The goal of the speech
In the first place, the success or failure of a speech is related to its goal.
According to Trump’s advisers, the goal of the speech was to reach out and unite the country.
Everyone who Trump attacked during his campaign – that is, most Americans – listened to his speech very carefully. This was a unique opportunity for him to mend burned bridges.
Still he didn’t utter a single positive word about Hillary Clinton or her supporters, about women, latinos, muslims, immigrants, sexual minorities, the disabled, Democrats, Republicans, the media, the US intelligence community or the foreign allies of the US. Nor did he provide any positive message for those concerned about climate change or national security. The same applies to those angered by his habit of constant lying.
All these people were disappointed in Friday’s speech. Down the line, they’ll be ever harder to convince by anything Trump says.
Talking to a hostile audience is one of the most difficult situations a speaker might face.
Although most of the live audience were Trump supporters, the main audience of the speech consisted of all 320 million Americans, and secondarily, the rest of the world. Trump is supported by a minority of Americans and by an even smaller minority of non-Americans. In fact, slightly short of 20 percent (63 million people) of all Americans walked into a voting booth and voted for Trump.
A speaker facing a hostile audience often doesn’t even try to win it over because it’s a tough job. However, the newly elected leader of a nation needs to try to unite his country and to get at least some sympathy from his adversaries. It would help him tremendously in his work.
Yet it seems like the real goal of Trump’s speech was not reaching out and uniting the nation, but rather pleasing his established supporters and perhaps trying to rationalize his upcoming policies as president.
In humoring his supporters, Trump’s speech was probably successful. He repeated his tried and tested, simple campaign messages. The speech also fit well with his stated strategy of bypassing the political parties and the media and talking directly to his supporters instead.
In trying to rationalize his upcoming policies, the speech was a failure, however. The message didn’t hit home with a critical listener. It was simply too illogical and too far removed from reality. One needs to be pretty deep in Trump’s world in order to imagine having heard anything even close to watertight argumentation.
For hard-core Trump supporters, the argumentation may have worked. So, it’s really all about what the goal of the speech was. Unfortunately, that we don’t know.
Using high status
High and low status are terms used in the world of theater. High status refers to a person adopting a dominant position relative to those around him. High status can communicate for example self-confidence or arrogance. Trump’s performance on Friday – as his performances during the campaign trail – was pure high status.
Some expressions of high status we saw in the speech were a low tone of voice, slow and clearly articulated speech, a head barely moving, a severe and relatively expressionless face, mouth and lips pointing outwards as well as half-closed eyes and frowning.
In addition, we saw a relatively motionless body with only the arms making controlled gestures. Trump kept his hands far from his head. The palms of his hands would often be open, fingers apart from each other, with one finger occasionally pointing at the audience.
These status techniques are straight from the book and they are studied at theater schools.
Public speakers tend to use high status most of the time and this is normally recommended. However, when exaggerated, the audience’s experience may tilt towards the negative connotations of high status, rather than the positive ones.
All of this, accentuated by the frequently aggressive tone of voice and message, gives an impression of the speaker overly emphasizing himself and placing himself above other people. The style appears authoritarian, especially when the speech includes passages such as ”There should be no fear. We are protected, and we will always be protected.”
Here the speech starts to sound like the talk of an omnipotent father figure, who expects the audience to see themselves as his subjects. Oddly enough, the ”I will protect you” message is contradictory to the all-American ideals of individualism, individual initiative and freedom as well as the cherished right for individuals to bear arms.
The manner Trump dressed for his address matched his speaking style: a black suit and overcoat together with a red tie communicate power.
Structure and content of the speech
Trump told the audience that the country is in a terrible state, called out the culprits and told that the future is bright.
The structure of the speech was clear. Trump used simple words, lots of powerful slogans and almost every word he pronounced was easy to hear. The good old rule of three, i.e. reciting lists of three things, was also frequently used.
Trump made effective use of pauses and some parts of the speech included powerful verbal imagery. The speech ended with a strong “Let’s make America great again” sequence, which probably worked well with his supporters.
On the other hand, Trump’s use of voice and his body language, while not monotonous, were quite repetitive, like a train going at a steady speed. This occasionally reduced the effectiveness of the words he spoke.
For example: reading the transcript of Trump’s speech, there are actually plenty of mentions that seem to aim at uniting the nation. Trump talked about ”healing our divisions”, about solidarity, ”we must debate our disagreements honestly”, ”there is no room for prejudice”, and ”whether we are black or brown or white”.
Still, when watching the speech on video, those words somehow don’t stand out as unifiers of the divided nation. It didn’t sound like the words were emphasized in the sense of rebuilding burnt bridges.
Part of this impression is also because the presumably unifying words were mostly presented in a somewhat odd context of ”[opening one’s] heart to patriotism”, ”total allegiance”, loyalty and ”a new national pride [that] will … heal our divisions”.
Many listeners would ask whether gay Americans are invited to that new pride? How about the latinos, muslims etc.?
This brings us to the content of the speech, which caused the speech to fail except for Trump’s existing supporters.
Trump’s description of the horrendous state of the country was largely false and understood as such by most listeners. The US economy, industry, employment, crime rates and the military are not in such a catastrophic shape as he claimed. Those statements alone would be enough to strip most public speakers from much of their credibility.
Trump also told who are to blame, i.e. who the enemies are: politicians and foreign countries. This includes foreign businesses and people, whether they are immigrants, employees of foreign companies abroad or terrorists.
This means Trump wanted the audience to believe that even as president, he himself is not a politician. That’s not credible.
It’s also interesting to note who was missing from the list of enemies: the rich.
An old quote comes to mind here: ”What you are speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say”.
The isolationist tone of the speech was detached from reality. No country can isolate itself from the world, not even North Korea. In addition, many of the toughest issues facing individual nations can only be attacked through international cooperation.
The speech made no mention of climate change, even though it’s a far bigger issue for the US than radical Islamic terrorism – the only issue Trump mentioned as meriting the kind of international cooperation that he otherwise spoke so strongly against. Since 2001, the US hasn’t seen any significant radical Islamic terrorism and there have been no signs of it increasing within the the country’s borders.
For other countries, Trump’s message was menacing.
The ”America First” slogan is strange, as it’s always been clear that the US primarily seeks its own interest – just like any country. Again, the message seemed to be targeted only at Trump supporters, not to the nation.
The lack of logic in the speech continues.
“January 20, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.” While Trump’s speech correctly used plenty of ”we” and ”you” instead of ”I”, one easily gets the impression that people might equal just one person. And if you look at the administration composed of millionaires, billionaires and family members, the notion of them representing the common man or woman becomes quite surreal in the listener’s mind.
Trump’s message of ”people” and ”a movement” can be understood from the fact that many of his supporters still feel that he honestly represents their interests.
So again, the message was apparently directed not at the nation but at Trump’s supporters.
Therefore, the big questions about this speech are: why did Trump not talk to his opposition? Was it only because he, as many public speakers, knows that it’s hard to convert those that disagree with you?
End note: a speech evaluator’s difficult task
It was no easy task to evaluate Trump’s inaugural speech, because I, like everybody else, already had an opinion about him. Yet, one should try to evaluate a speech from an objective viewpoint.
I have learned, both as a public speaker and as a speech evaluator, that each piece of feedback is only the point of view of a single person and therefore shouldn’t be taken too seriously. I have seen how even experienced evaluators give very different feedback on the same speech.
However, when honest and constructive feedback repeatedly generates similar comments to a speaker, then he or she can be quite confident that the feedback might be valid, whether it’s about one’s strengths as a speaker or about something one could try to improve.