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Speaking privately in public

With some reluctance I listened to Donald Trump's inaugural address last week. His speaking style has been like fingernails-on-a-blackboard to me since he began campaigning. But as a speaking coach, I knew I had to. So I livestreamed the speech on PBS last Friday, hoping to gain some insight into why his communication style has resonated with so many people. This speech was a bit more formal than his usual, but it still had elements of his trademark manner. I was reminded why he is such a gift to comedians, with confusing syntax, simplistic vocabulary, and overall crassness. There is nothing at all leader-like about the way he presents himself.

And yet I know that is what his voters say they responded to during the campaign: his complete and utter upending of The Rules, which extends to grammar, it seems. But I still was not sure what exactly it was about his speaking style that won them over.

Then it dawned on me. He speaks publicly but does not engage in public speaking. He is very much in private speech mode. And he's not alone is using private speech in a public place; it's an easy trap to fall into. We all know, of course, that when you're speaking at a podium it's public speech, but so is the meeting in the board room. Even most of what you engage in at the worksplace, though it may be informal, is still public if you don't know your conversation partners extremely (I-can-trust-you-not-to-tell-anyone) well. Public speech tends to rely as much on transactional as relational speech. For example, you develop relationships with co-workers to get things done. In private speech, relationship is paramount; transactions are often absent. It is the act of connecting that gives the conversation meaning. Subtext is all in private speech. So when we know people well and have bonds of trust with them, we can be sloppy in our word choice, not finish sentences, say "you know what I mean"--and trust that they probably do! With intimacy we assume an understanding.

That is what Donald Trump's speech conveys. (John McWhorter shares a similar conculsion in his op-ed in the New York Times.) Though Trump is not personally close to his audience, his mode of speech implies intimacy to them. He uses pseudo-private speech (which his supporters call "authenticity") as his mode of delivery. It does nothing for me; I find the casual tone, lack of preparation and general thoughtless disrespectful in the extreme. BUT I can see how it might appeal to others who identify as the "forgotten people." Thinking the leader of our nation sees you as one of his buds must be very empowering.

When most of us use private speech, talking to those we know well, there is opportunity to clarify misunderstandings. And when friends say things we don't always agree with, we know them well enough to judge what they really believe and will act upon. If we're unsure, we ask. That will never be possible with Donald Trump. We will never know what he truly believes. His "just plain talk" approach worked to get him elected, yes. But one of these days those who voted for him will find out that his "honest authneticity" was just a trick conveyed by his undisciplined speaking style. When they realize they never really knew him, that he was the friend who got all the benefits, I would guess that many of them will see his "relatability" as a huge con.


Reader Comments (1)

Excellent post Ann. Good analysis!

January 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterKathleen Conklin

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