I teach college undergraduates in communications and public speaking and the president of the United States has been making my job a lot harder.
He has broken so many norms and rules that I’ve felt our textbook is going to need a post-Trump edition. Or, then again, depending on how his presidency proceeds, maybe it won’t. Maybe I’ll be able to tell my students that by breaking so many rules, Trump was the victim of a failure to communicate according to the standards we’ve come to expect and which I’d come to expect as normal, based on my years as a speechwriter and communications consultant. Maybe he’ll wind up proving all the rules he’s breaking do, actually, still matter. What are those rules?
Social media is dangerous. The first things we teach our millennial generation students are the risks of social media. Don’t treat your statements on social media as private, regardless of your “privacy settings.” Remember that there is a difference between in-person, face-to-face conversation and things you post on your Facebook page. The condensation of messages into a few LOL-style acronyms means your communication is diluted and the chances for misunderstanding go through the roof: context is lost, misunderstandings multiply, and relationships suffer. All of these lessons seem to be lost on the president, who does, at least, prove that being a senior citizen does not fulfill the stereotype that older folks don’t use new media.
Presidential rhetoric is strategically prepared. In teaching students the difference between impromptu and spontaneous speech, as compared to rehearsed and prepared presentations, we often rely on speeches from presidents past. Discussions of communication strategy, organizational communication, and public relations all revolve around the importance of audience analysis and preparation for rhetorical situations and knowing the response an opinion leader’s speech will provoke. Trump’s spontaneous outbursts — on social media and also in other forums, including the debates last year — have made this rule seem irrelevant. And if the president is not coordinating his message with his own cabinet secretaries or his own press spokesman or his United Nations ambassador, then what does this old rule mean? Maybe nothing. Or maybe everything, if this second communication failure winds up in the textbooks as an example of how things should not be done.
Use “We” not “I.” As a general matter, in public and political communications the magic word is we. Rather than stressing egocentric power, this little word helps speakers establish empathy with an audience, whether that audience is a college classroom or the entire United States of America. All successful American presidents, from our inception as a nation to the most recent memorable rhetorical moments, have relied on the power of “we.” George W. Bush at Ground Zero, for example, in his “bullhorn” speech, never spoke in the first person about “his” power, “his” ability to exact vengeance or justice. He instead spoke of “our” citizens’ loss, and that the people who destroyed the Twin Towers would “hear from all of us, soon.” Contrast this with Trump, who constantly uses the first person and tells us, as he did in his GOP convention speech, that only he, he alone, can fix our nation’s ills. I make deals, I make the best deals. Not the inclusive we that has until now been the model for what constitutes good public speaking. Abraham Lincoln did not say that he would bind up the nation’s wounds; he said that we would. Trump is breaking a rhetorical norm that dates back to the Founders’ We the people. Totalitarian tendencies are borne out in this difference between saying “I speak for you” and Johnson’s “We shall overcome.”
Speech should be “audience-centered.” This more-recent lesson comes from my old boss Frank Luntz, the GOP speech guru who helped engineer the Gingrich revolution and who was an Oxford debate champion in his early years. The lesson was to understand one’s audience and not speak only in terms that you, the speaker understand. As in: do not focus on your personal opinions and feelings, but rather the opinions and feelings of your listeners. Do not focus, for example, on what your daughter’s clothing stores’ sales are. Focus on the real-life challenges of your listeners’ lives look like. Trump has been ignoring this lesson since his emergence on the national scene, including when he told Luntz last year that he didn’t consider John McCain a hero because, as he said, “I like people who don’t get captured” (It particularly struck me that Trump said this to Luntz, who also taught me the importance of stressing political principle over ad hominem attacks or other personalized quarrels.)
Be consistent. Creation of a reliable personal identity through your communication leads your audience to be more confident in you, to trust you, and it allows you more room to persuade. Across media — social media and otherwise — Trump has allowed his mercurial messaging to flow freely. The confusion this has created is actively undercutting his effectiveness. Defenders say this shows his authenticity, but authenticity butts up against consistency when messages conflict so constantly as they do with this president. As only one example: America affirms the One China policy in a phone call, but takes a phone call from the president of Taiwan before the president of China.
Back up your claims with solid evidence. This one is particularly vexing, and when it comes to the academic context, even pernicious. Many of my fellow educators are now seriously having to contend with potential classroom confrontations over “fake news” and — worse yet — “alternative facts.” If the White House communications team and the president himself validate these categories as criticisms and justifications (respectively), who are we pointed-headed professors to take issue?
Think before you speak. Hardest of all, in teaching communications, is the conflict between this golden rule and the behavior of our president. The lack of a “filter,” at first blush, might seem to endear Trump as a welcomed voice of authenticity, but his inconsistent outbursts undercut the most basic lessons we try to teach students about the importance of reasoned, disciplined communication. The ethics of public speaking is central to the concept of rhetoric, which has been the foundation of democratic discourse for millennia. By refusing to follow this basic precept, Trump makes our job as educators harder, in the sense that he seems to have succeeded in last year’s election despite flouting rhetorical norms. Still, in another sense, he is an exception that proves the rule. And if his administration continues foundering before it even gets off the ground, maybe he will make the job of teaching communications easier, not harder.
Jonathan Riehl is a communications consultant for campaigns and nonprofit organizations. He is a former political speechwriter and is completing a book on the modern conservative legal movement.