Politics

A Media Strategist Breaks Down President Trump’s Speech To Congress

Expectations were low for President Donald Trump going into tonight’s speech before the Congress. He had yet to successfully pivot to a Presidential tone. His inaugural address was dark and pugilistic. His executive orders had been merciless and poorly carried out.

So it was not surprising to me that the theme of tonight’s speech was unity.

Trump set the expectations for the speech with his preview interview on Fox and Friends in the morning. He chose a friendly, non-confrontational forum where he could be relaxed. His surprising self-effacing tone, both verbally and physically, was new, something not seen in him to date. In the interview he graded the work he had done in his first 40 days in office with an A; he graded his communication of his message with a C.

When I saw that interview I knew that Tuesday night's speech was going to be a crafted reset of his presidential messaging style – to demonstrate to his critics in the media and the skeptical public that he could be "Presidential."

There is a big difference between a performance artist and an actor:

  • An actor uses discipline and craft to bring a script to life, endowing those words with parts of his persona in the process; a performance artist crafts his of her own persona.
  • Acting is putting one’s persona in service. Performance art is serving only your persona.
  • Acting takes practice. Performance art takes chutzpa. They can work together but the performer must be willing to serve the actor.

President Trump is a very accomplished performance artist. He is able to command very large audiences with the force of his persona. He is at his best when he is off script, off the cuff, irreverent, politically incorrect and thereby seen as "authentic." His platform style in those moments is similar to a stand-up comedian.

But a prepared speech before the joint houses of congress requires more than a performance artist. It demands an actor or an orator to deliver it — and President Trump is neither.

Many a great actor has saved a mediocre play but never has a great play saved a mediocre actor. The writing in tonight’s speech had soaring moments that were well written, but for me, the President’s performance many times didn’t live up to what was on the page.

That is not to say that he wasn’t well rehearsed. His cadence was measured. His tone was calm. His demeanor was even. His gestures were limited (at least in the opening minutes).

Clearly he and his advisers had thought about every part of his presentation – even the color palate. Gone was his signature red tie. Tonight, President Trump’s tie was blue with white stripes. Whereas red projects power and excitement, blue projects masculine corporate competence. And clearly with matching blue ties, the Vice President and Speaker of the House were deliberately staged as well.

After being announced at the door, the President’s entrance into the House Chamber was certainly better than his on-camera walk through the Capitol to the inauguration platform. This time he knew he was on camera every moment and used it to exude confidence. And it wasn’t an easy room. The Democrats didn’t rush to the aisles to shake his hand. They stood properly when he was announced and then promptly sat down and did not applaud.

When he was introduced on the platform he was calm and not overly mannered. But when he began his speech I noticed that he was glued to the teleprompter panels. It took him a full 8 minutes to look at the audience. Clearly this night was about the written word and unfortunately the President is not a great reader. So, the speech was constructed with a series of short sentences as the President’s limited and unvaried speaking tone doesn’t lend itself to complex clauses and parenthetical language.

The key to teleprompter reading is how it is formatted. What an actor sees on the teleprompter can dictate the rhythm and tone of how they speak. In formatting one must consider the length of a phrase, where to put spaces and line breaks, what words are underlined, bolded, italicized, ALL CAPS or ALL FOUR. For example, when a speaker lacks varied vocal tone, shorter sentences work better.

The President delivered what was on the teleprompter with very little ad libbing – especially for him. Performers need a lot of applause and it was clear that the Republicans knew that. They applauded at every line in the beginning, so much so that I thought they had been instructed to do so.

And the speech rolled on fairly predictably until one moment that will be remembered as the defining moment of this speech – when the President introduced Carryn Owens, the widow of Senior Chief Petty Officer Ryan Owens, the navy seal who was killed in action Yemen last week during a raid that Trump authorized, and which sources say yielded no actionable intelligence. That moment was made a major impact on members of Congress and audiences watching at home. In that moment everyone in the chamber and watching the screen was unified in their support of Mrs. Owens and Donald Trump appeared truly "presidential," in the opinion of some notable pundits. 

But when the President congratulated himself for “setting a record” for the length of sustained applause, he was diminished by his ego. And that moment of self-congratulation took the power away from the finish of the speech. An actor must not ever stop to congratulate himself for a great moment while he’s in it, that’s the audience’s job.

The ending of the speech had soaring rhetoric but was flatly delivered. The big moment before it had eclipsed the ending and the self-congratulating performer had peeked too early. All in all, I’d give the President’s performance a B minus. But, the President’s opposition must take that stunning emotional moment very seriously because, if President Trump can learn to string a series of those moments together and suppress his self-congratulatory ego, the Democrats could be hearing another seven of those speeches.