Speechwriting Basics: What Trump’s Press Conference Can Teach Us
With the advent of quick-reply communication channels like social media and supposedly off-the-cuff reality TV programming becoming the standard for quality, you’d think the great art of speechwriting (and the need for it) would be dead or at least dwindling, but you’d be wrong. Speechwriting basics are the cornerstone of effective communication.
President Trump’s press conference held on Wednesday, January 11th (when he was still just president-elect) proves that point. Let’s set the stage: A superpower nation is divided. Protests and demonstrations are planned for the weekend of your inauguration. It takes weeks to nail down anyone willing to perform at said inauguration. And in your Washington backdrop, Congress is considering some major law changes that could radically change the everyday lives of millions of hardworking Americans. Whether you voted for or support Trump or not, all can agree the first press conference as president-elect is a big league, very tricky moment with eyes around the globe fixated on Trump—everyone has burning questions and concerns they want answered and addressed. Stressful, right?
Whether you’re addressing an entire nation or not, speechwriting basics are a great study for any writer. Truly great speechwriters rely on developing and refining your ideas for clarity, identifying and understanding your audience, and making sure your tone and delivery matches the occasion (i.e., the setting). All of these speechwriting basics come in handy during your creative writing projects, too.
Speechwriting Basics that Every Writer Should Know
1. Know Your Audience
Who are you speaking to? Why have they gathered together? What concern(s) should this speech address for them? This is all about point of view.
In the case of President-Elect Trump, the audience was the 40 or so members of the press who would be relaying the content of the speech to American and international audiences. They were gathered together to report on the future president’s plans as he was just a little over a week from being sworn into office. Before an event, you always want to make sure you do your research so you know can develop a succinct, easy to follow communication that targets the information they’re looking for from your expertise.
2. Choose Your Core Message
With a campaign motto like “Make American Great Again,” coming up with a streamlined and clear core message for the first press conference as president-elect should’ve been a no-brainer. How will Trump and his administration make America great again? That should’ve been the core message of the press conference. You can tell Trump and his team lost sight of this point due to a rambling of tangential jokes, arguing with the press audience, and meandering from point to point without a clear connecting thread. It seemed more like a brainstorming session for a speech than the finished product itself.
Think of your core message as the top of the iceberg and everything else below the surface is helping it stay afloat. It’s always important to make sure you provide useful, clarifying, and informative details that support your core message and give it some girth and body for press and your audience to chew on. Your speech should not just restate your core message over and over again without going deeper into why that message is important.
3. Get Your Facts Right
Fact check. Fact check. Fact check. Erroneous statements or misquoting facts and figures make you look stupid and instantly makes the other data you quoted questionable, putting your whole speech under scrutiny. It’s that simple.
And don’t just make sure the numbers and source attributions are accurate. That’s not true fact checking. With fact checking comes the social and ethical responsibility of using reliable sources and data to backup an opinion in order to change people’s minds. Speechwriting is a powerful form of persuasive writing.
You should never use a set of data without fully investigating who collected and analyzed the data, where the data came from and how many were part of the sample pool, and how the source organization is using the data. Data manipulation comes in many forms and is becoming more and more common by analysts. Manipulated data or poorly sampled data can lead to skewed, incomplete, or misrepresented information.
4. Develop Structure to Deliver Your Message
Your speech should have a clear beginning, middle and end. Remember those 5-paragraph persuasive essays you studied in elementary school and bemoaned all the way through college? Well, they’re back. Sure, this wasn’t an official State of the Union address, which is always more formal than your average presidential press conference, but your first press conference as president-elect is a momentous occasion. And bringing a good speech to an important event shows that you take the event seriously and that you respect the audience. It also sets the tone and precedent for future press conferences.
Each paragraph should have a point, and that point should circle back to your thesis. In this case: How Trump and his administration will make America great again. Trump relied on too many people to connect the dots for themselves, which is a speechwriting basics no-no. It’s your job as the writer to make sure there’s no room for interpretation leftover. The goal is for everyone to leave your speech remembering its content: your core message and a couple of supporting items.
And while Trump circled around the concept of making American great again, he kept taking steps backwards in time and context. Instead of providing details about what he and his administration will be doing (i.e., Why Congress is repealing Obamacare/Affordable Care Act without a replacement when that was a major deciding factor for many of his voters), he would backpedal into campaign smearing tactics and make general (and often erroneous) blanket statements, like when he asked the crowd (rhetorically) if they really though Hillary Clinton would do a better job than himself in foreign diplomacy and trade deals.
My point is this: nothing from the campaign trail other than his laundry list of swamp-draining and promises of how to make America great again was what the press and country gathered to learn more about. His refusal to let go of the campaign and his rivalry with Hillary Clinton actually made his arguments about himself weaker. If you want to prove to an audience that you’re a thought leader, someone capable of change and wielding power responsibly, it’s best to share fully-formed, original, actionable thoughts. Instead, he repeated his campaign pledges with no new detail, which makes it sound like he doesn’t have a plan to Make America Great Again at all.
At the end of the press conference, the American public knew no more about Trump’s and his administration’s plans for 2017. The only thing that was presented in any detail was by his attorney in regard to his business affairs and handling of perceived conflicts of interest.
5. Word Choice
When Trump continued the usage of one of his favorite phrases: “Obamacare is a disaster,” he effectively stomped all over speechwriting basics #1 and #4. To millions of people, Obamacare isn’t a disaster but a lifesaving necessity that has afforded them the opportunity to protect and improve their health.
With some simple rephrasing and careful word choice, Trump could’ve made his underlying point that he believes that the ACA as it currently stands is not the most ideal situation and should be improved, and then elaborate on what some of those changes could look like–not just the aftermath of lower prescription costs.
Instead, his phrasing was intentionally derisive and polarizing. Anyone who likes Obamacare and isn’t convinced that the ACA needs changing was immediately turned off. Their ears closed from rage and a lack of empathy and understanding. Trump closed himself off from being heard. The result? Not more support for repealing Obamacare, but protests in Michigan a week later protesting the repeal—one of his biggest platforms—and a transition approval rating of just 44%.
Speechwriting skills can bolster your resume and give you an additional opportunity to generate some serious cash while sending out your great American novel or latest draft of your chapbook, but the skills required of truly great speechwriter rely on awesome communication skills and knowing your audience, which come in handy during your creative writing projects.