Carol Kinssey Goman, Ph.D
On the morning of February 28th, President Trump granted an exclusive interview to “Fox & Friends,” in which he evaluated his job performance. Trump awarded himself a grade of “A” for achievement and “A-plus” for effort, but only a grade of a “C” or “C-plus” on communicating. “My messaging isn’t good,” he said.
At his first Address to Congress later that evening, his messaging got a lot better. That improvement was not only because he stuck to the script and delivered a well-written speech, but also because his body language was better. The combination produced an effect that delighted some people and dismayed others: Trump looked presidential.Since I enjoy collaborating with people whose work I admire, once again I called on Patrick A. Stewart, Ph.D., from the Department of Political Science at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville to compare his observations with mine.
Carol Kinsey Goman: This was a much softer, more conciliatory and positive Donald Trump than we’ve seen previously. He looked more relaxed and comfortable. His voice was lower and warmer, his gestures less pronounced, and his facial grimaces gone. Even his usual posture (head jutted forward of his body and shoulders rounded) was straighter and more aligned.
Right from the start, he signaled that he was going to deliver a different kind of message. His opening references to black history month, the recent threats to Jewish community centers, and the shooting in Kansas City not only addressed topics he had previously been accused of not responding to soon enough or well enough, but were also delivered calmly and somberly. When he followed with, “I am here tonight to deliver a message of unity and strength, and it is a message deeply delivered from my heart,” it was clear that “Twitter Trump” was not going to be heard from that evening. And part of a “kinder, gentler Trump” was his use of humor.
Patrick Stewart: President Trump used humor rather effectively, in most cases as a planned part of his script (and he did stick to his well-written speech quite well). He hit a home run with his humorous comment about the five Harley Davidson motorcycles that were on display on the White House lawn and then giving the payoff when he finished with, “They wanted me to ride one, and I said, no thank you.”
Goman: That remark was self-deprecating and because it was “out of character” for him, it was also disarming, subtle, and very effective. The power of vulnerability to connect with an audience is often overlooked by speakers, but it can be a great leadership strategy.
Stewart: Given my research on laughter and humor, what was most fascinating to me was not only how Trump used humor, but also how laughter indicated audience member’s disbelief concerning what his plans were. Early in his presentation, there was audience laughter concerning Trump’s “draining the swamp” (likely due to what I’ve seen from many of my previously optimistic students after they’ve worked in DC on both sides of the aisle – a high level of cynicism concerning changing DC) and his dealing with the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Likewise there was laughter when he gestured to the Democratic Party side of the aisle and commented about putting “trivial fights behind us.”
Goman: The one humorous comment that was clearly ad-libbed was Trump’s remark about the audience’s response to the Navy SEAL Ryan Owens as breaking an applause record.
Stewart: This certainly did lighten the mood – and may be seen by some (especially supporters) as an appropriate use of humor. For others, this might be taken as making light of the sacrifice of a service member in an operation that was already considered quite controversial. It remains to be seen as to whether this will allow Trump to side-step criticisms concerning his handling of the situation (as humor often does) or whether it will be seen as yet another indicator of being out-of-touch with average Americans and those who serve.
Goman: Because he was standing behind a lectern, we were limited to gathering body language cues from his gestures, which (while minimized) were quite familiar. We agin saw the “air pinch” and his signature batonic gestures, such as the up-and-down beat of a hand, to mark out content he finds highly significant.
Stewart: In line with prior research on debates, we also saw that most of his positive statements were emphasized with his dominant hand-and-arm (the right side) and the negative with his “sinister” (left) side.
Goman: That is fairly common behavior for most speakers, but I kept wondering if it seemed odd to the Congressional audience when positivity was indicated to the right where the Democrats were sitting, and negativity to the left toward the Republicans.
Stewart: As we’ve seen in the past, Trump emphasized some points with both hands — such as his comment concerning “free trade and fair trade” and the division between communities and the police.
Goman: Double hand gestures almost always come across as a sign that the speaker is genuinely vested in whatever he/she is talking about at that moment. So they have a positive impact on an audience. But just as some signals occur when people feel certain, others show up when they are not so sure. One of these “tells” for Trump is a unilateral, right-shoulder shrug. In the Congressional address, the first time it occurred was when he commented that our open borders were “allowing drugs to pour in at an unprecedented rate.”
Stewart: I caught that too. In fact, Trump engaged in these shoulder shrugs several times during the speech. Another example was when he stated, “I’m going to bring back millions of jobs.” There also appeared to be a sharp shrug when he said “we must support the victims of crime” and just before he asserted “I have ordered the Department of Homeland Security” to starting the victims of immigration crime office (VOICE).
Goman: Of course, facial expressions say a lot as well, and you caught a micro expression cue that I missed entirely.
Stewart: What was quite revealing was his leaking of fear through a micro expression that involved pulling his lip corners back when he made a statement concerning war and immediately before he discussed the sacrifice made by Ryan Owens. This is a movement my colleague Elena Svetieva and I have studied regarding how people evaluate Trump – as we report in our working paper, we found that, at least in the weeks prior to the election (although not immediately before the election), this very same type of display appeared to function as a powerful form of nonverbal punctuation that led to research participants perceiving Trump as more competent. So not only is this microexpression likely a reliable indicator of his internal state (possibly a fear of war and its costs), it also has the potential benefit of making Trump more “believable” on this issue.
Goman: I’m glad you said “possibly” when you assigned a motive to Trump’s fear display. Because I often see people making a common error: They accurately pick up the displayed emotion (fear, anger, grief, joy, disgust, surprise or contempt), but misinterpret the motive behind it. We always have to guard against jumping to conclusions about what emotional displays mean – because we really don’t know. For example: A truthful person’s fear of not being believed looks identical to a liar’s fear of getting caught.Do you have any closing observations? What else caught your attention?
Stewart: I was interested in the signals that the audience sent. While it was expected that the Republican Party would show its unanimity through group applause, cheering, and laughter, often while standing up, it was good to see that we did not experience the lack of respect for the Executive Office that some were fearing from the Democrats — especially given the “Joe Wilson moment” when the South Carolina Republican Congressman yelled “You lie” at President Obama during his Presidential address to Congress in 2009. While we did hear a collective groan when Trump promised to start the victims of immigration office, the Democrats were not unanimous in refusing to stand or clap on certain policy points, suggesting there was a potential willingness to work with Trump in some areas. In other words, we might see more across the aisle work than during the Obama administration.
Goman: You and I watched the address with the goal of analyzing President Trump’s messages, but I wondered what most people thought about while they watched. Here is what Google reported as its the top trending questions during the evening:
- “Who wrote the speech?”
- How tall is the President?
- Is Donald Trump a Democrat or a Republican?