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Can Donald Trump deliver a great speech? Dr Karl Simms is a senior lecturer in English at the University of Liverpool. His research interests include continental philosophy and popular culture, and his published work includes analyses of hermetic poetry and the ‘language of thought’.

Karl appeared on the University of Liverpool Podcast to discuss how Donald Trump is using language in a different way to traditional politicians – and scoring big wins as a result.

5 ways Donald Trump is trying to make rhetoric great again

  1. Trump’s strength is in the ordinary
    Donald Trump is far from an ordinary man. He inherited a vast fortune. He has been a well-known public figure and television star for decades. And he has risen to the highest office in the world.

    But despite that, he has found a way to connect with ‘ordinary’ Americans by using several common verbal tics. These include discourse markers, such as inserting phrases like ‘you know’ into his speeches; spontaneously adding thoughts in the middle of speeches; and mimicking everyday speech by not always following a singular line of argument.

    Karl says: “To his detractors, it makes him sound somewhat incoherent… but to his fans it certainly gives the impression that he’s replicating the patterns of ordinary, day-to-day conversation between two people.”
  2. Through his language choices, Trump creates a new audience dynamic
    In the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, Trump faced Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton – and the difference in their communication styles was stark.

    As a career politician, Clinton’s speeches were disciplined and structured. Trump’s speeches, in contrast, involved off-the-cuff remarks to the audience and everyday language.

    Clinton’s approach, says Karl, provided “much more of the air of a monologue.” He adds: “The audience is playing a supporting role to her, rather than being an equal partner, which it implicitly is with Trump.”
  3. Emotional resonance is key
    By sticking to pre-written speeches, traditional politicians tend to veer towards more formal structures and vocabulary.

    Trump doesn’t take the same approach. He stretches out words like ‘amazing’ over several seconds. He uses slower speech, exaggerated intonation patterns, and breaks down his delivery into smaller segments.

    “The actual style of it is quite similar to how you might talk to a young child,” says Karl. “And that gives Trump’s speech quite an emotional resonance.”
  4. Trump and other politicians are capitalising on growing cynicism
    Karl believes society in general is moving “away from traditional politicans” using structured scripts – largely because of the growing awareness of, and cynicism around, tradtional rhetorical techniques.

    He explains: “There’s always been a dichotomy between wanting to appear sincere and spontaneous while nevertheless employing the established techniques of rhetoric… In Trump’s case, his strategy is to become more informal.”
  5. Trump’s confidence also impacts his rhetorical delivery
    “People don’t want a performance of sincerity,” argues Karl. “They want actual sincerity.”

    Karl argues that since the ancient Greeks, the challenge with public speaking has been to maximise its persuasive register through extensive preparation, while at the same time being aware that preparation makes a speech sound less sincere.

    “Ultimately, how you overcome it is how people have always overcome it… by being yourself… It’s quite difficult to be yourself in a public speaking situation.”

    During his election campaign, this appeared to come naturally for Trump. And the results were clear to see.

About this podcast

The University of Liverpool Podcast aims to bring listeners closer to some of the academic experts, authors and innovative thinkers from the University who, through their in-depth analyses, research and discoveries, are affecting positive change in the world today. Each episode features one or more of our academic experts discussing research in their specialist field. Subscribe to the University of Liverpool Podcast via iTunes, Tunein and Google Play Music (US and Canada only).

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