How effective was President Trump in the State of the Union?
Updated: Sep 16, 2019
March 22, 2018
As a presentation skills trainer and coach, I’m often asked to critique the effectiveness of politicians. Full disclosure, I am a registered Independent who leans socially liberal and fiscally conservative. But this is not about politics or positions, it’s about the effectiveness of the speaker and the speech writers as communicators and leaders.
President Donald Trump gave his first State of the Union address last evening. This time honored event takes place in the House Chamber of the United States Capitol Building, and is attended by members of Congress, their one guest each, Supreme Court justices, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and, of course, the American people.
The historical goal of this annual event is to unite their audience as Americans, to lay out their vision and legislative agenda for the year, and to move the audience to strive to accomplish bold ideas toward “a more perfect union.” In times past, Franklin Roosevelt spoke of “the four freedoms,” in a world already at war. Lyndon Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty” when roughly one in five Americans lived in poverty. Bill Clinton, while deep in the Monika Lewinsky scandal, spoke of the first government surplus in 30 years and of saving Social Security. And Ronald Reagan, just days after the Challenger explosion, spoke of America continuing to move forward to “reach for the stars.”
The primary problem with President Trump’s State of the Union address is that his words and actions outside of this speech do not match the words spoken within it. With limited exceptions, President Trump appeared unfamiliar with the speech, as if he was reading much of it for the first time. Still, those who only listened to the President’s speech likely heard calls for unity and bipartisanship; but those who watched it took away a very different message.
President Donald Trump has a unique presentation style in that his primary goal seems to be a desire to be adored. His true feelings for the half of the room that was not continually applauding, i.e. the Democrats, were to regard them with disdain. He does this with his words, but even more blatantly, with his body language, facial expressions, and gestures.
Throughout his 80 minutes plus speech–the third longest in history–his focus was almost completely on the left side of the room where his party, the Republicans, were seated.
President Trump read predominately from the left teleprompter, to have a semblance of eye-contact with the people that gave him 75 standing ovations* (*Sinclair Broadcasting Group).
When he stepped back from the podium during those ovations, President Trump overtly turned his entire body to face the left side of room.
Whether it’s smiling, clapping, pointing, or posturing, it is always done toward those who are applauding him. He joined in the applause at times, even inviting them to stand at one point.
From a body language standpoint, there’s something troubling about President Trump’s default pose. I gather he’s trying to emote strength, but I see a mixture of pomposity and arrogance; looking down his nose at everyone, including his applauding supporters. It’s not a look shared among equals or trusted friends; rather, it is a look used by authoritarians to remind onlookers ‘‘you’re only in my good graces for as long as I allow.’
The level of contempt he feels for those not applauding is palpable, and evident to everyone watching. He continually turns his back to them, acting as if they are not even there.
And when he does face them, it’s done with a sense of obligation …
Or of placation. As if to say, “There! Are you happy now?!”
If they don’t respond by giving him the standing ovation he is accustomed to, he literally gestures them to do so. News outlets reported that President Trump’s goal for the speech to be conciliatory. If true, then he failed miserably.
This is especially surprising coming from a businessman. Imagine if the CEO where you work called a company-wide meeting and then spoke only to the Sales team; completely disregarding Product Development and Marketing. What would office morale look like the next day? What staff turnover be like?.. How would the Board of Directors rate that CEO’s effectiveness?
It’s clear that a handful of people were involved in the writing of the speech; some topics were given paragraphs of time, along with a personal story and in-house guest to drive the point home, while other topics were given a single line and then quickly moved away from. Indicating a laundry list rather a cohesive, impassioned speech.
The writers did a good job, for the most part, of writing to how the President speaks: small words, short sentences, and places where can ad-lib for emphasis. The words did evoke the intended emotion within the listener, but those words would have had the same impact if delivered by anyone else or simply read from the page. President Trump himself did not bring anything more to the speech than what was written on the page.
The primary theme of the speech was consistent with President’s Trump’s inauguration and his campaign speeches: fear. Business and Wall Street may be at record heights and climbing, but we as Americans’ need to fear immigrants, fear gangs, fear terrorists, fear Iran, and fear North Korea. Fear is a very powerful motivator, and one President Trump has employed to great success, starting with his first campaign speech where he negatively stereotyped Mexican immigrants. The implied solution to this fear obviously being him personally; as he said during his nomination speech “I alone can fix it.” The problem with this is that to stay in power, you must keep your audience afraid. And that means continually finding new enemies.
What I found most surprising is that President Trump continues to make no attempt to increase the size of his base. There was nothing in his speech that spoke to women or their issues; conspicuously absent given the recent, massive women’s marches around the country and the #metoo movement. There was nothing that spoke to the LGBTQ community. There were swipes at people of color, particularly African-American athletes, where he once again spoke of standing for the anthem and flag. And there was little that spoke to the needs, concerns, or attitudes of Millennials, the largest voter-eligible bloc in the country.
Summary: I believe this was another missed opportunity for Donald Trump to be Presidential, as opposed to just sounding Presidential. President Trump, like all leaders, needs to see opportunity, not enemies, in the half of the room not lavishing praise. If he were able to move a small fraction of them, just 10 people, from their current position to one of support, the success of his agenda would be exponential. He would then be seen as a bridge, a ‘uniter’, and of being the dealmaker he claims to be. Until then, he is merely seen as the cause and rallying cry for deeper entrenchment on both sides of the aisle.
The Speech Writers: B-
The Speaker: C+
Gina Grahame is Communications Coach at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, defacto trainer of Executive Presence at Google, and a political junkie from Macomb County, Michigan, now living in San Francisco.