State of the Union – An Evening of Contrast

Ann Barlow, West Coast President & Partner, Peppercomm

Each year during the #SOTU, I enjoy and, to be honest, sometimes cringe at watching the faces of the VP and Speaker of the House behind the president. Even if they are all of the same party, let’s face it: It is not easy to look politely interested and suitably responsive while listening to someone speak for an hour or more –  this year, a full 82 minutes. Mike Pence gets props in this case for keeping his face appropriately disciplined, interested and pleasant for nearly that whole time. Nancy Pelosi demonstrated her political prowess by controlling her face perfectly, with perhaps some intentionally arch facial responses as she read the speech transcript while the president spoke. Of course, her greatest nonverbal was her seemingly effortless ability to control her colleagues’ response to President Trump’s caravan reference with a mere hand gesture.

To me, though, the most interesting contrast was between two smiles during the evening: the president’s and Stacey Abrams’. As the commander-in-chief made his points, particularly to applause from his party allies and, at times, the whole chamber, he smiled in what I think most experts would describe as a smug way – lips pressed together, eyes somewhat narrowed. He was clearly proud of the accomplishments he cited and delighted in the audience’s positive reaction. The expression, however, seemed at odds with his words on unity and working together for the country.

Stacey Abrams, in her response, was playing to a much smaller audience in the room. As she faced the camera, however, she wore a smile that she maintained throughout her speech. Her pleasant, open expression matched her message of hope for the country and its future.

The audience’s reaction was also a study in nonverbals. Throughout the evening and the chamber, the camera focused on attendees – principally members of both houses – capturing their reaction to the president’s remarks on their faces. Clearly some were aware that the camera could pan to them at any time and were willing to play to it, however subtly, but others appeared not to notice or remember, at least for a short time. Those responses were priceless for their authenticity, a rarity in politics today.

The morals of last night’s speeches go well beyond the observances here, but as communicators, we would reinforce to both the speakers and audience that expressions and gestures, however fleeting, can be captured for posterity, so awareness matters. We would add that, done right, gestures and other facial expressions can convey as strong and lasting a message  as any state of the union address.


About the Auhor: I have the pleasure of leading Peppercomm’s West Coast team, partnering with them and our colleagues from here to London to support our clients’ success. I work on businesses such as Wilbur-Ellis, Cisco, Arconic and others in food, agriculture, technology and financial services, building programs and providing counsel to help them meet their business goals. I’m especially focused on employee engagement and reputation management, particularly with employees’ growing expectation that their leaders take a stand on today’s issues.

Before I joined Peppercomm, I was with TSI/Mindstorm as a senior vice president and head of Mindstorm’s New York office. I had my own consultancy, was PR director for a large health system and worked at GCI in Toronto.

I was named PR Professional of the Year and one of the Top Women of the Year by PR News, one of San Francisco’s 100 Most Influential Women by the San Francisco Business Times, and a Make Her Mark award winner by Silicon Valley’s Watermark.

I’ve spent nearly all of my adult life on the U.S. coasts, but I was born in Davenport, Iowa, and grew up mostly in Illinois. I’m proud to be a Fighting Illini with a degree in public relations from the University of Illinois.

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