It’s not in the remit of this blog to take party lines, and so we are approaching the US elections with, if not cool detachment, then certainly warm fascination.
Donald faces Hillary in November, and depending on your pollster you can find the election predictions going either way. While their political enemies criticise them as a thoughtless, blowhard, imbecile (Trump) or a devious, cold, political robot (Clinton) it can’t be denied that they are both savvy players to have made it this far. Though they appear to have little in common, step back and notice: both candidates have placed public appearances as a key part of their campaign.
Looking at the body language of the candidates, the immediate realisation is that the audience will see what it wants to see: Hillary’s speeches are carefully planned and scripted – which depending on your point of view makes her look either presidential or calculating, authoritative or disingenuous. Donald’s speeches may be looser and more off-the-cuff, but he has exactly the same problem of appearing to be one thing to one person, and something else to someone else: where supporters see honesty, opponents see a loose cannon.
It’s especially difficult to get a steer on the speakers’ body language when they are in front of a friendly crowd: adversity tends to knock down the barriers and reveal character. But here are a few pointers: Clinton has a relaxed on-stage presence behind the podium, usually gesturing with a single hand. She expects the audience to come to her, and listen to what she has to say. Clinton is in the detail, and gives the impression that she knows the situation as well as any of the journalists who put questions to her.
Donald’s body language is superficially much more dynamic than Hilary’s, and as a result his personal image and brand stick powerfully in the mind! As an example, in this speech at Saint Anselm College’s New Hampshire Institute of Politics Auditorium he starts slow and vague, but at around the 14 minute mark, he’s gets more excitable and less articulate, with his hands coming up and moving around a lot more than Hillary tends to do. However, whenever Hilary references/attacks Trump, her body language begins to mirror his, with both hands coming up and wheeling around. Look at this Columbus Ohio Speech clip to see her do this clearly. Clinton is attacking a Trump statement at about 24 minutes and 15 seconds mark, and here you will see her mirroring his non-verbal behaviour.
Endeavouring as ever to be politically neutral, we are going to do a classic SWOT analysis on both candidates and looking at how their performances stack up against our criteria of good public speaking – namely the three golden principles of Authority, Authenticity and Audience.
Authority is Hillary’s strongest asset. She has already taken a role on the world stage and is a known quantity to people and governments overseas. The world would like to see Clinton in the top spot, because she has been a global household name since her time as the First Lady to her husband, Bill. Hillary speaks with real authority, a grasp of the situation under discussion and knowledge of foreign affairs. She demonstrably knows her stuff.
Donald doesn’t have to appeal to people around the world – they don’t have a vote. What is clear is that pro-Trump voters are having an emotional response to him. Whilst the liberal media worries about what he is saying about Hispanics and women (to name but two groups he’s upset), to the people who love him, what he says hardly matters. This emotional response put the outside observer in an interesting position: logically, Trump is opposed to many of the things that we are told attracts voters – and yet to those who love him, his faults are ignorable.
How does he do it? Trump’s strength is in knowing his audience. Making the big statements – such as the wall between the USA and Mexico, or refusing entry to Muslims – may appear unworkable as well as offensive, but to a proportion of the voters, they are radical, big-thinking and easy solutions to their problems. Trump ‘says the unsayable’ – which are usually the sort of things that some people may say over the dinner table or in bars. To a Trump voter, Donald is ‘one of us’, while Clinton is ‘one of them.’
Clinton has already admitted that she has a problem with likability and trust. Likability isn’t such a problem, but the business of trust certainly is. The ins and outs of who she did and didn’t email – and from which account – are confusing and labyrinthine.
The big problem for Hillary is one of authenticity. Are we getting the real deal with Hillary – or is she presenting an acceptable face? When we feel we are being lied to, we treat everything about an individual with suspicion: presidential traits – such as putting on a power suit and choosing words carefully – can look underhand and calculated. Hillary doesn’t have Trump’s from-the-heart, speak-as-I-find style. This is a style that has brought Trump problems, but it has also won him strong loyalty.
Donald says what he’s thinking – and that, you might think, is his downfall. But most people accept that no president is going to give them 100% of what they want, and so in a world of political players and professional dissemblers, Trump’s candour deepens his relationship with his admirers, while those at the edges are turned off.
One vote, however, is only one vote, however passionate you are about it.
Trump’s supporters are telegenic: there’s nothing like an enthusiastic rally, with plenty of showbiz thrown in, to make good TV pictures, and the state of the show can be relied upon to say something newsworthy. The problem for Trump is that each time he says something controversial, he is alienating the middle ground. He looks like a man buffeted by whim, and while his solutions to problems appear straightforward, in our heart of hearts, we all know that complex situations require more than a wall on the Mexican border.
We always counsel authenticity over likability: people seem to love Trump, but do they like him? Would they want him as their direct boss?
There are many opportunities that Hillary can open up between now and November. One of Trump’s key selling points is his successful track record in business. Hillary needs to appeal to the small businesspeople, the entrepreneurs and ‘mom and pop’ stores and assure them that they will be better off under her leadership.
It isn’t her style, but Clinton needs to go on the attack with a simple emotional statement about Trumps shaky business background.
Above all, Clinton needs to respond to Trump’s statements that upset large numbers of voters; there are plenty of long-term Republicans who didn’t like Trump, so anything that attracts these voters over to her side could help turn the tide: the centre ground could be Hillary’s for the taking – if she listens to criticism and makes more emotional plays for the support of former opponents. Clinton may not win many friends, but what she needs is for people to pinch their noses and vote for her – which is not the most compelling slogan, but elections have been won on less.
‘Strategy’ and ‘Donald Trump’ go together like cheesecake and Marmite, but there are still opportunities for getting voters on side before the polls. The first thing Donald needs to do is to soften the message: the hot air and bluster may well be exposed for what it is. Trump needs to keep his candid, authentic voice, but he needs to show a more thoughtful side if he wants to reassure voters that his radical proposals are more than reckless.
If Trump could persuade those who don’t like him that he would be a competent steward of the United States, they may well come around to the idea that he is the breath of fresh air politics needs. He needs hard policy: if Brexit has taught us anything, it is that you shouldn’t vote for something on the basis of a bold promise without a rigorous plan. If he could demonstrate that on major issues he has the ability to be more conciliatory than divisive, and give more detail than rhetoric, he would be delivering the kind of message the moderates prefer: better the devil you know as for all his faults, and no one could ever accuse Trump of misrepresentation.
Hillary and Donald
The threats are where both Trump and Clinton have something in common and it boils down to one word: complacency.
On polling day, it all comes down to who can bring out the higher number of voters to make their mark, and both sides in this contest could fall foul of complacency.
For Clinton’s supporters, the thought of Trump as president is so abhorrent that they literally can’t imagine it happening. There is a risk that the Democrats who wanted Bernie Sanders will withhold their vote, reckoning it will be a walk in the park for Clinton. They could be proven wrong. Clinton needs to present Trump as a credible threat – which risks boosting Trump’s campaign. Between now and November look for dire predictions of a Trump presidency from Camp Clinton.
Complacency also affects the Trump camp, but the threat is potentially greater. Whilst Clinton may appeal to voters to support her, Trump’s campaign has always hinged on his overwhelming self-confidence. Presenting himself as the natural winner may be just enough to make some of his supporters feel they don’t need to add their vote to a majority they assume will be overwhelming. A change of tone from Trump to imply that losing is even a possibility would look like weakness, and admitting weakness is a long way off-brand for The Donald.
From a public speaking perspective, Hillary and Donald are a dead heat. The contest looks set to be a classic head vs heart decision: will the American people choose the established, credible career politician? Or will they plump for the businessman who speaks his mind and gets what he wants? A simple solution appeals to the heart. Messy reality requires more careful thought. But who will come out on top in November?
In terms of public appearances, Hillary has it nailed when it comes to authority, and Donald has a direct line to his audience. We suspect that they are both presenting an authentic version of themselves, but Clinton’s is by necessity a lot more guarded and cautious. And it is costing her support. It’s hard to accuse Trump of anything he doesn’t cheerfully admit to himself.
We always counsel that public speaking is more than a ‘nice to have’ – it is a key leadership skill. The president (or CEO, Senior Leadership Team etc.) have to look like they are in charge at all times.
Where did Obama get it right?
In many ways, Obama had similar problems to Clinton: the perception that he is a political insider, more head than heart, an academic with some questionable associates. Throughout his presidency, he has appeared on chat shows, poked fun at himself and done a lot to address this perception.
Obama has done a lot to make himself appeal to the greatest number of people for as much of the time as he can: but there is a new breeze of anti-intellectualism blowing through the world, perhaps as a consequence of social media. We don’t want our leaders to be smarter than us anymore; we want them to be more like us, and Professor Barrack Obama is very much not like the poor, white, educationally disadvantaged Americans who fundamentally dislike him. It’s a cliché to say that Obama was elected by the black and Hispanic votes, but the USA is increasingly a nation of minorities, and Trump’s big mistake may be that the audience member he sees as ‘typical’ (white, male, working class) is not, ultimately, typical of the voting public.
Obama’s speaking style is calm, measured and authoritative. For voters frustrated by a lack of change, the instinctual manner of Trump marks a completely different approach. It’s fashionable to print what Trump says in black and white and cast him as an idiot; natural speech rarely makes sense when written down, and to the people watching Trump’s speeches rather than reading them, they make perfect sense.
Whether Hillary’s campaign survives the authenticity problem or Donald finally says something that even his most enthusiastic supporters cannot stomach, we shan’t know until the results are called. Between now and November – there’s a lot to think about.
NB: Past performance is no guarantee of future results; post-Brexit, we shall leave calling the election results wrongly to professional pollsters!