Unquestionably, this has been the year of Donald Trump. Love him, hate him, fear him, it is impossible to ignore him. As a professional speaker, I find him fascinating. I watch his mannerisms, his hand gestures, his eyes, the hair of course. I listen to his words. All of them point to a style of defiance and bravado. He, the proponent of the great Mexican wall, has built one around himself – a shield against any form of rebuttal or inquiry. A shield that also magnifies the intensity of his delivery, even when true substance is lacking.
You see many examples of this in the animal kingdom. Frilled lizards, like the one pictured, extend the ruff around their neck to appear larger and scarier than they actually are. Puffer fish do this, and even cats do it when they arch their backs. This act of physical bluster seeks to fend off predators and competitors without having to resort to actual battle.
Please do not take this blog as a hit piece against Mr. Trump. I am trying to understand his appeal through his technique, which has obviously proven to be a success. He is one of many notable political speakers, and I wish to compare him to those from either side of the political landscape.
When Mr. Trump speaks, his hands speak too. Everyone who speaks publicly learns sooner or later the power of hand gestures while talking. You need them. Most people in the know use their hands carefully, as punctuation – subtle embellishments of the message, a demonstration of openness, sincerity, or conviction. Nervous or inexperienced speakers tend to use their hands too much, a problem that becomes even worse on camera. Over-gesticulation becomes a distraction to the audience, but correct hand usage guides the listener through the story: body language becomes a chaperone to the words.
My feeling is, Mr. Trump’s hand gestures convey an instruction to his audience: “Don’t interrupt me. My idea is all that counts.” He speaks with one or both hands raised to shoulder height, palms outward, often with his index fingers raised. To me, the palms outward represent the universal “stop” signal. They put up the wall that says, “you must not interrupt me.” The raised index finger highlights the topic being spoken about. They say, “This idea is the best. This is the one thing you should be paying attention to.”
Mr. Trump seldom lets those hands rest. They are in action throughout his entire verbal delivery, ready to fend off any challenges from hecklers, or worse, journalists.
Mr. Trump’s speaking style is another wall, another defensive inflation of his physical self. He allows no spaces, no pauses, no chance for anyone else to step in. There are three essential components of his speech, in my opinion. These are refrains, flares, and hooks.
Refrains: Mr. Trump never says something once. He says it many times. Every phrase is stated three or more times, especially while he is framing his thoughts, or as a statement comes to a close. Here he is defending his use of the “Star of David” graphic on a recent anti-HRC web page. I have highlighted the refrains.
Flares are phrases that shoot out the side of a conversation as unnecessary fillers, distractions. They shift the mind’s focus away from the key message, reducing the chance for people to truly focus and then question its veracity. This is very much like the technique of distraction that magicians use to keep audiences from scrutinizing a trick too closely. Here’s the same piece with the flares highlighted:
This style of distraction with flares and repetition of the main elements is very efficient, and I do not believe it to be anything but intentional. Not only do these two techniques act as a wall, but they also help drive a message home. Anyone who sells for a living knows this: if you say something over and over again, regardless of how true or false it is, most people will start to believe it.
Hooks: Then there are the hooks. The most brilliant of all. Generally two words long. Shocking and memorable. Crooked Hillary. Little Marco. Lyin’ Ted. Failing New York Times. These are powerful because they are easy to remember. Compare this to President Obama’s signature phrase, “Let me be clear,” which, to a vast majority of listeners, sounds like “I want your attention for a protracted period because I’m about to say something that’s good for you.” Few people have the patience for that.
Mr. Trump’s wall of words reflects his brash, in-your-face style, presumably a job requirement in the cutthroat world of property development. How does it compare to other well-known political speakers?
- Ronald Reagan was known as the “Great Communicator.” He employed a folksy, smiling style, even at his most serious. As a professional actor, he knew the value of cadence, the power of a well-timed pause, as well as the memorable hook. Remember, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” A positively world-changing sentence.
- Bill Clinton has always been a master storyteller. He, too, conveys a down-home charm that beautifully reflects his Arkansas roots. His speech supporting Hillary at the 2016 Democratic convention sounded like he was speaking to a customer over the counter at a rural general store.
- The Obamas are both skilled at speaking. President Obama delivers his words like smooth jazz – calm, sophisticated, authoritative, with plenty of pauses and space for the audience to revel in a piece of art. The first lady exudes passion, optimism, and commitment to her ideals. Her eyes reveal a willingness to share, a positive energy.
- Ted Cruz uses the soaring intonations of the pulpit, reflecting his father’s preaching style, evoking emotion and credibility by verging on song and powerful repetition. Credit for this style is due of course to the Gospel preachers of the South, mostly African-American, and most expertly employed by Martin Luther King, Junior.
Every public figure has to choose a style of voice. Some, unfortunately, do not. I do not find anything memorable about Hillary Clinton, and that may be her Achilles heel. Nor is Marco Rubio terribly impressive. And Jeb Bush, as nice a guy as he may be, could never muster the verbal energy to justify that exclamation point.
This is not an age where cerebral chat is valued. It is an age of sound bites and public fascination with the next new thing, the more shocking, the better. In Canada, Rob Ford was a cultural icon. Had he survived his battle with cancer, he would still be on the world stage, not because of the depth of his political intellect, but despite it. As one journalist one said to me, “Ford only has to blow his nose, and it will be on the front pages.
Mr. Trump is a speaker for our times. He goes on the offensive, blocking scrutiny and bulldozing over issues that would have sunk other politicians long ago. His unapologetic ignoring of those unreleased tax returns is a prime example. Anger is the current tone of the nation. You see it in the relentless trolling and shaming of people online. You see it in the normalization of horrific attacks on innocent people, whether initiated by terrorists, citizens or the police.
Collectively we have lost the capacity to question ourselves, and have consciously dispensed with any obligation to take blame. It is easier and quicker to apply that blame elsewhere. Thus, the frilled lizard that is Mr. Trump. Attack with watever you have, even if you do not have much. It will scare your opponents away, which, as we are all observing can be an extremely effective survival tactic. Extremely effective. It’s so effective I can’t – I have people – so many people who say it’s the greatest… listen – it works, OK?