So to Speak: Hillary and Trump on the Stump

I spent a good chunk of my adult life teaching public speaking to college students. Some years ago, a tome called The Book of Lists was compiled by David Wallenchinsky; his father, Irving Wallace; and his sister, Amy Wallace, who researched and ranked items in sundry categories.  In the list of " greatest fears," speaking in public was ranked number one, beating out other commonly dreaded fears like heights, bugs, deep water, sickness, dogs, darkness, and even death.  Perhaps that's the reason why a college course in public speaking used to be mandatory.

But that was before the greatest fear among academics became coaxing fragile, self-absorbed students out of their protective "comfort zones."

My time spent judging oratorical skills naturally compels me to scrutinize the public performances of political candidates.  And in this ersatz election year, I am having a field day – though you won't find me gamboling across said field in unbridled glee!

It is pretty obvious that neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald J. Trump is a public speaking heavyweight.  At the Democratic Convention, Team Hillary tried to ease expectations about her acceptance speech by pointing out beforehand that she is no titan of elocution, compared to, say, our present president – or even, for that matter, the former president to whom she is married.

Speechifying has become an increasingly significant factor in the vetting of presidential wannabes, even if it comes with the risk of being bombarded by partisan verbosity.  Television has made a tremendous difference in our ability to judge the aspects of a candidate's speaking performance: content, delivery, and body language.

Before the electronic revolution, voters who wanted to see and hear candidates had to go out and find them in the flesh.  My mother frequently told the story of how, as a young child, she was taken to a whistle stop to observe Theodore Roosevelt orating from the rear platform of his campaign train.  She recollected seeing the gas lamps being lit in the station and her father hoisting her onto his shoulders to get a better glimpse of the happening.

But the convenience of technology brings with it the downside of overexposure and repetition.  And the more candidates jaw on the hustings, the more vulnerable they become to criticism.  Trump is facing the added factor of a basically hostile press that pounces on and parses his every word.  You'd think The Donald would learn by now to stick to script.  But public speaking is a complex process in which the whole is greater than the sum of its critics.  By being outspoken – or speaking out of turn – Trump may feel that he gains as much as he loses.

The content of political speeches has become largely boilerplate, cobbled together by professionals, with some input from the candidates themselves.  That's what made the hubbub over the similarity between passages of Melania's present and Michelle's past convention speeches so ludicrous, since neither was written by either lady.  So who's stealing from whom?

Naturally, the safest form of delivery is that of reading the speech from a script or a teleprompter.  But Trump, an inveterate risk-taker, refuses to play it safe.  He often repeats phrases, as if to nail them down.  The Donald adlibs.  That could prove to be his undoing.

Hillary's speaking style suffers from being the reverse.  She is too predictably "on script," making her delivery sound mechanically driven, rather than "in the moment" inspiring.  When she does veer from her teleprompter, she measures her words carefully, punctuating them with a lot of annoying "uhs."  Maybe it's a matter of wanting to be safe instead of sorry, but her dull rhetoric can sound pretty sorry in itself, even without apology.  She sternly berates Trump about how "words matter," yet her own personal dilemma is that the majority of Americans do not take her at her word.

As in all forms of social media, much of what sells a speech is the sizzle, not the steak.  The evasive quality called "delivery" is crucial to the credibility of a candidate.  At the same time, the sense of frankness that comes from "moving off message" can also unintentionally lead to damaging misinterpretations.  Both candidates have landed in hot water over unscripted remarks.  But it's Trump whose goose is continually being cooked.

In the weeks ahead, will he adopt a more cautious speaking style?  Not likely, because, ironically, the unscripted "outsider" moment has also become part of The Donald's appeal.  Rhetorically speaking, Hillary finds safety in boredom while her opponent finds boredom in safety.  Indeed, what may be packing Trump's rallies to the rafters is this very quality of spontaneity, dangerous though it may prove.

I think it's fair to say that the faithful flock to Trump's tents in anticipation of being treated to a taste of his notoriously blunt speaking style.  They seem to love it when he throws in the vintage Trump "believe me" or "it's a disaster."  His use of adjectives to describe others may seem crass or silly, but they stick.

Body language also plays a "yuuuge" part in public speaking.  Hillary plods slowly onto the stage at her rallies, clapping her hands, smiling broadly, hugging dignitaries, pointing to the audience – and grabbing the microphone almost immediately.  She grandly waves her arms and jabs her fingers for emphasis.  Her platitudinous pronouncements rarely receive rousing cheers.  Some of those in the "rainbow coalition" seated behind Mrs. Clinton on the stage seem glassy-eyed and distracted.  An exception was Seddique Mateen, the Orlando nightclub shooter's father, who jumped up and waved a small American flag, even as Hillary bemoaned the tragedy wrought by his dead son.

At gatherings of the Trump faithful, there is a different vibe; he speaks to – not at – his supporters in an almost conspiratorial tone.  Often Trump will ponder aloud what he should do in light of the latest campaign developments.  Should he punch back at those who attack him?  Is there anyone in the audience from Utah?  Don't you love New Hampshire?  I love New Hampshire!  This is the entertainer in Donald Trump that, at its best, can grab an audience by the seat of its pants.  FDR, also a New Yorker, was a very different kind of candidate.  But he accomplished a similar coziness with his audiences through his fireside chats.

Other past presidents, like Reagan and Lincoln, possessed an indefinable speaking quality that connected with listeners.  It's a good trait, but it isn't always found in a good person.  Adolf Hitler was a powerful public speaker.  Arnold Schwarzenegger said that once and was roundly criticized for it.  But the fact is that Hitler managed to mobilize an entire nation through the power of the spoken word.

We're into the final stretch of an election in which both candidates have regrettably high personal negatives.  Hillary's henchmen may be concerned that she sounds too shrill and comes across as a moralizing schoolmarm.  Trump's team may by now have had it with his contentious adlibbing.  There will be many more stump talk in the months to come.  But the contrast of their styles and substance will matter most during the three crucial presidential debates.  That's when the rubber of speech will truly hit the road.