A few months before the GOP convention, the leading contender for the party’s presidential nomination is Donald Trump: a man who draws huge, rapturous crowds… yet delivers long, rambling speeches that are apparently entirely off the cuff.
Now, let’s be clear: there’s a lot more on the line here than what that means for speechwriters. (For instance, I believe the presidency of an authoritarian race-baiting con artist would be bad for nearly everyone and downright catastrophic for most, American or otherwise. In related news, I don’t sleep too well these days.)
But a lot of leaders have to be looking at Trump and asking if that approach would work for them, too. Could they command audience adulation and overwhelming ovations if they just ranted from the stage for an hour or so, as long as they kept boasting, pressing the right hot buttons and insulting the right targets?
If Trump wins the presidency, or even the party nomination, will that usher in a new era of ad-libbing informality—even among politicians who aren’t seeking to replicate Trump’s put-downs, recitations of poll numbers and commentary on the events of the day?
Why Donald Trump isn’t killing speechwriting
I took to Twitter a few days ago to explain why I don’t think that will happen.
Some very big questions here for speechwriters. Has Donald Trump killed off our profession? https://t.co/yeenkTnt97— Rob Cottingham ✒️🗣 👥👥👥 (@RobCottingham) March 25, 2016
I don't think he has. What DT is doing works for DT — but his audiences don't demand that he do anything much beyond Be Donald Trump.— Rob Cottingham ✒️🗣 👥👥👥 (@RobCottingham) March 25, 2016
That is, say a few outrageous things as outrageously and outlandishly as possibly, over and over and over again. Jab those hot buttons hard.— Rob Cottingham ✒️🗣 👥👥👥 (@RobCottingham) March 25, 2016
On the rare occasions he speaks to a non-partisan audience, out comes the TelePrompTer. (See AIPAC.)— Rob Cottingham ✒️🗣 👥👥👥 (@RobCottingham) March 25, 2016
It's easy to Tell It Like It Is™ when you're just stroking your audience's resentments. Far different when talking to the unconvinced.— Rob Cottingham ✒️🗣 👥👥👥 (@RobCottingham) March 25, 2016
And far different if your brand isn't "holy crap, he'll say anything."— Rob Cottingham ✒️🗣 👥👥👥 (@RobCottingham) March 25, 2016
Most speakers are accountable for what they say. So they want to think it through in advance. Often, that means working with a speechwriter.— Rob Cottingham ✒️🗣 👥👥👥 (@RobCottingham) March 25, 2016
Or they want to persuade an audience, or change the way they think. Again, enter the speechwriter.— Rob Cottingham ✒️🗣 👥👥👥 (@RobCottingham) March 25, 2016
I could be completely wrong about this, if Trump's model turns out to be the biggest innovation in oratory since the Gettysburg Address.— Rob Cottingham ✒️🗣 👥👥👥 (@RobCottingham) March 25, 2016
It could propel him into the White House and people like me into the poorhouse. At least I'll have plenty of company as the economy implodes— Rob Cottingham ✒️🗣 👥👥👥 (@RobCottingham) March 25, 2016
But I don't think that'll happen (the change in oratory, that is).— Rob Cottingham ✒️🗣 👥👥👥 (@RobCottingham) March 25, 2016
If you need to persuade, inform or positively inspire, Donald Trump's School of Oratory will flop worse than Donald Trump University.— Rob Cottingham ✒️🗣 👥👥👥 (@RobCottingham) March 25, 2016
A big-time flop. YUUUUGE. Sad.— Rob Cottingham ✒️🗣 👥👥👥 (@RobCottingham) March 25, 2016
But I do think there’s a change afoot in public speaking, one that’s been happening for some time now.
Authenticity, not oversimplification and bluster
If there’s one thing Trump’s success teaches us as speechwriters, it’s that many audiences are responding more and more to what they see as his authenticity. In interview after interview, Trump’s supporters cite the way he “tells it like it is.” For him, that boils down to two things:
- telling them things they are already inclined to believe but that few other politicians are saying, and
- speaking in a way that comes across as sincere.
And it’s that second factor that matters most to speechwriters. Because for Trump, that appearance of authenticity comes through partly because he’s speaking spontaneously, and partly because he’s saying things that breach the boundaries of mainstream political discussion (both in what he says and how he says it).
For other speakers, authenticity probably—hopefully—looks and sounds a lot different. (Marco Rubio discovered that when he tried going Full Trump, and succeeded only in humiliating himself shortly before ending his presidential bid.)
Authentic speaking involves a lot less heightened formality and rhetorical ornamentation. We won’t discard those flourishes, but they may well spend more time in our toolboxes and less time on the page (and at the lectern).
In their place, we’ll be boning up on plain, clear, conversational language. We’ll find ways to express things in starker terms, with sharper contrast—but without losing nuance, especially when we’re dealing with more complex or delicate issues.
Still, that won’t be true for every speaker; some speakers wouldn’t be authentic without rhetorical tours de force or linguistic complexity. It won’t be true for every speech; some occasions demand an elevated tone.
And it won’t make Trump’s brand of oversimplification and bluster a winning strategy for speechwriters or speakers. Most of the audiences you’ll address are demanding enough that expressing yourself with nuance and precision will still carry the day.
Let’s hope so, anyway. If not for the careers (and job satisfaction) of speechwriters, then for the good of our world.