Dan Hill, Ph.D.
The president is no longer an apprentice. This was Donald Trump’s third and, at times, probably his best (delivered) State of the Union speech. What people tend to remember are openings, closings and peak moments in experiencing an event and Trump, ever the showman, provided a real doozy of an opening. Always sell hope, and he did so. Effective messaging requires a goal that everyone can endorse, and that is how Trump began his speech. Framed as it was, who could possibly choose the latter when the options presented were “greatness or gridlock”? And in evoking World War Two and specifically D-Day at the start and end of his speech, it was as if Trump was a CEO reminding his employees of the year that the company had break-out sales and became the dominant, proud player in its sector.
Were there also many peak moments in between the speech’s two bookends? Yes, there were. The other key to success besides a rousing start and finish is creating as many peak moments as possible without overloading a speech with one-liners that feel “gimmicky”. Trump’s text was filled with lots of strong, simple declarative statements and claims that were forcefully spoken in a strong, slow, emphatic manner so that they wouldn’t go unnoticed. All of it was aided by the call-outs to his invited guests for the occasion. Those guests made the issues being discussed more human, offering from the gallery the smiles Trump rarely showed and the tears he couldn’t possibly show from the podium. Every call-out was masterfully deployed.
So far, so good: but how about Trump’s body language? People dance to the music, not the words; and there Trump hit a wall—himself. With his jutting chin, his tendency to lean back and literally look down (his nose) at the members of Congress there beneath him, Trump ran a risk he wasn’t suited to avoid. Some anger mixed with a decent dose of warm smiles is what I call the Golden Blend. Using it, a speaker will come across as determined to achieve goals and yet flexible, thanks to the fact that happiness is an expansive, all-embracing emotion.
Trump couldn’t—or wouldn’t—pull that off. The sad winces and disgusted grimaces that so often pepper Trump’s speeches were suitably missing this time from what was intended to be a soaring speech and often was. But the anger—evident in everything from a jutting chin to eyes narrowed and lips tightened or stretched taut in anger—were predominant. Smiles, they were there occasionally, yes, but not nearly so much. Why did the proportions matter so much, and especially now with a divided Congress? Well, the speech was on-message but not on-emotion. The anger combined with a few real digs against his opponents made it seem as if actually partisan rancor and, therefore, “gridlock” was getting chosen instead of “greatness.” And that was most true when the grand opening ended abruptly with a line about how the economic momentum of the country was at risk if there were “foolish wars” or “ridiculous partisan investigations” that will derail that momentum.
The speech’s strength was when it invoked a greater “we” in the way that a CEO speaking to employees gives them what they want to hear: that the company’s leader has the qualities of a winner willing to share the glory. With the ever-so-barely veiled reference to the Mueller investigation, the State of the Union became for a moment the State of Donald Trump’s presidency instead; “we” became “me.” And while the address could and did move often nicely back and forth between positive versus cautionary messages, a fundamental consistency is required to establish trust. This instance of “me” wasn’t the fly in the ointment, it was more like the elephant in the room getting paraded across the stage for one fleeting moment. It was the low point of the speech, by far, undoing much of what was beautifully handled and making the president look stubborn and a force onto himself despite his America-is-great-and-we’re-in-it-together theme.
Finally, quite obviously Trump wasn’t alone on stage. At almost every moment, the cameras also showed us Vice President Mike Pence and the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. For anybody wanting to know if we have a divided government, the answer was delivered here non-verbally. He nodded (yes) as often as she shook her head (no). He offered some smiles, and she did, too, but most of them came across as if she were sucking on a lemon. Why she was so visibly paging through the text of the speech as handed over just before the address began, I don’t know. Was it to suggest the president might be wandering away from his prepared remarks, at times, as a sign of how he handles being commander-in-chief? Whatever the explanation, there you had it. Pence could be seen lowering his eyebrows occasionally, as if in the act of discerning the great, enduring truths he was hearing from the president. Meanwhile, Pelosi couldn’t wait for the speech to be over. No national emergency was declared last night, but the deeper crisis of the country’s gridlocked parties goes on unabated. A nearly great speech almost offered some progress there, but too often the non-verbal signals that accompanied the text were less a matter of a warm embrace and more the equivalent of a hard shove.
About the Author: Dan Hill, Ph.D., is the author of Famous Faces Decoded: A Guidebook for Reading Others and the president of Sensory Logic, Inc.