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What Trump can teach us about public speaking

Vanessa King

Vanessa King, district director of Toastmasters International, takes a look at the new president's victory speech and analyses it to see what we can learn about public speaking

The victory speech is the chance for the president-elect to demonstrate to the people what kind of leader he will be and his tone matters as much as his rhetoric. The electorate will be looking for his voice, the one that enables everyone, irrespective of how they voted, to see him as a leader. As holder of the most influential political office in the world, we need to know what kind of man he is, what he cares about, and where his heart is.


So how did Donald Trump do and what we can learn from the victory speech about public speaking?

The first half of the speech was clearly written for him, and well-rehearsed. This is to be expected, since both candidates would have written victory and concession speeches in advance of election day. This article will consider some of the messages Mr Trump delivered in his victory speech and some of the tools he used, consciously and otherwise, to convey his message.


"It’s about us"

Trump’s primary message that he wanted to get across to his audience was that it’s all about us now. His frequent use of our-we-us phrases hammered the point home, so we were left in no doubt that he wanted to bring all sections of the electorate together.


He put special emphasis on our-we-us with his familiar gestures – open arms, palms facing the audience as if about to take them in a big hug; thumb and forefinger of the left hand touching, his arm moving vertically and horizontally, as if in benediction; and with the tone of his voice, leaning heavily on many instances of all three key words.


America has been at War

Trump referenced the forgotten men and women, a phrase often associated with soldiers who have died in war. He then launched into his plan for rebuilding the infrastructure of the United States, which contained echoes of Roosevelt’s plan for bringing the US out of the Great Depression in the 1930s. He rounded off this part of his speech by referring to "our great veterans, who have been so loyal."

America is a Business

Trump establishes his qualifications for office in a very short paragraph. He reminds his audience that he has spent his entire life in business, looking at the untapped potential in people and projects around him. He promises that every citizen will have the opportunity to realise their untapped potential, and his decades in business mean his promise can be trusted, which appeals to the hopes of his audience.

Accidentally reversing the message

Speakers often have a main message they want to convey and we should be cautious about making casual statements that might reverse their intended meaning.

There are two examples of Trump doing this in his speech.

In his opening statement Trump acknowledged the debt of gratitude owed to Clinton for her service to the United States. Acknowledging the service of one’s opponent is to be expected in a victory speech, but he then added the phrase "I mean that very sincerely." This could suggest he means quite the opposite, given some of the previous statements he has made about Hillary Clinton.

Trump referred to relationships with other nations, making positive statements about "[getting] along with all other nations." He then adds the condition. The US will get along with everyone who is "willing to get along with us," suggesting that he knows the US won’t get along with all other nations.

Speakers should take care not to give contradictory messages with casual statements, particularly when the overall message is of such importance.

Tools for conveying the message

Donald Trump’s speech contained short, declarative statements that are very distinctive of his speaking style, such as "we will be," "we have to do that," and "it is going to happen." These statements convey certainty to the audience and the authority of the speaker.

He also used several rhetorical devices to emphasise his points and add rhythm and cadence. These powerful devices create a sense of excitement and passion in both the speaker and the audience.

Examples include statements such as "Americans… want and expect our government to serve the people, and serve the people it will," and "the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no more". In both statements the repeated phrases give emphasis and certainty to the message.

Conclusion

If a speech is well written, it has a primary purpose which is often made clear in the opening sentences, and simple structures such as repetition of phrases and short sentences lend substance and passion to the content. However, it’s important to remember that there are frequently additional messages that the writer might not have intended to convey. Every utterance and gesture must be congruent with the main message.

  • Toastmasters International is a non-profit educational organisation that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of meeting locations.


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