President Trump’s State of the Union: Was it good speechwriting?

31 Jan, 2018

President Trump’s State of the Union: Was it good speechwriting?

Chris Bender, Vice President, Public Affairs Council
January 31, 2018

With the pundits focusing on Trump’s speech from a political perspective, let’s focus on how it performed from a speechwriting perspective.

The speech performed well in many areas. Here are three examples:

  • Two for one. Several sections of the speech did a great job conveying two meanings with one phrase, a clever and effective trick that encourages the audience to think deeper on the speaker’s point – and makes the speech more memorable. Take Trump’s phrase “…steel in America’s spine:” It’s visual and references American industry.
  • Opposites attract. In yesterday’s blog post, we talked about pairing unlike ideas and creating word pairs to generate imagery. “After years of wage stagnation, we are finally seeing rising wages” is a great example of that technique.
  • More why, less policy platitudes. We also discussed the power of starting with “why” in yesterday’s post: Policy mechanics won’t sell the policy in a speech. Stories of the policy’s impact on real people make the sale. Because of tax reform, they are handing out raises, hiring an additional 14 people, and expanding into the building next door” is a great example of rooting out policy speak and focusing on its impact.

Now, here are a few areas for us to think about:

  • Details, details. Starting with “why” makes a difference but it’s important to give the audience enough “how” to make an idea seem plausible. “Tonight, I am calling on the Congress to produce a bill that generates at least $1.5 trillion for the new infrastructure investment we need.” The text might leave the audience wondering how that $1.5 trillion is paid for, drawing their attention away from what the speaker is saying.
  • Improvise wisely. Speaking off-the-cuff can make a speech more authentic, giving the speaker a chance to share personal thoughts or stories and further connect with the audience. It’s critical, however, improvisation comes across as additive. Last night’s written text, for example, read “the era of economic surrender is over,” a powerful idea expressed in a simple way. Trump added “totally” during the speech. Here’s a good rule with improvisation: Ask yourself, “Will what I’m about to say advance the story?”
  • Know when to pull in the reins. A speech can be like riding a horse: It’s fun at a controlled clip but, as soon as the horse starts to gallop, it can get away from you fast. The second half of last night’s speech was long, overly reliant on audience members and seemingly listing topics without a clear focus (the “four pillars” in the immigration section was the first real structure in a list of policy initiatives). The speech needed rhetorical devices rather than benefitting from them. The lesson for us: Less is more. Don’t step on your message by overdoing it.

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Comments? Email me at cbender@pac.org