‘This is a fraud. This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election … we want the law to be used in a proper manner’.
For days now, political commentators have been speculating that Donald Trump would prematurely declare victory, and with the above words he did it. And on the page, on the screen, reading those words, you feel the visceral shock the pundits were anticipating. Because at the time I’m writing – 8am on a sunny morning in London on November 4th – nobody has won the election. Neither Joe Biden nor Donald Trump can possibly declare victory, not definitively, and maybe not for days and weeks. So Democratic-expressed fears about the US turning into a totalitarian state don’t seem too unreasonable, not when a sitting president feels entitled to speak out of turn as he did just now.
But while Trump’s words at this point are forceful and probably massively inflammatory, I’m just as intrigued by the tone of voice he consciously adopted to deliver them. Because he was doing a very good job of sounding reasonable. Tired, yes – Trump quipped at the start that it was probably the latest press conference he’d ever done, at 2.20 EST – but I’d question whether he sounded emotional, or angry.
Most of us will be all too used to getting our daily bite-sized chunks of Trump direct from an open-air rally somewhere on his never-ending campaign trail, when – in his more florid moments – he can come across like a barking demagogue crossed with a stand-up comedian. And at other times he drifts into a weird, disconnected-sounding folksy-sentimental singsong, which, frankly, makes me shudder. But he wasn’t like that today. He was trying – and to some extent succeeding – to look and sound like the wronged party. He didn’t raise his voice; his tone was conversational; his use of intonation and vocal variety was surprisingly subtle. While his words will undoubtedly stir dissent, he didn’t sound like someone ordering his supporters to man the barricades.
Mick Mulvaney, his former chief of staff, made a similar point on BBC’s Today programme in an interview this morning. He conceded that Trump’s words were potentially alarming, but went on ‘I’d encourage those same people who are worried to look instead to his demeanour, which was not combative, which was not encouraging people to take to the streets’.
The relative importance of words, body language and vocal tone when it comes to the effect we have on our audiences is, of course, a hotly debated topic in presentation skills training. Albert Mehrabian’s famous formula – often misquoted to the effect that tone and body language comprise 93% of the meaning we project, and verbal content only 7% – suggests that words are less powerful than we might think. The truth is that all three elements are vitally important, and if we neglect one at the expense of the others, we severely limit our chances of having an impact.
What’s really interesting is that many people won’t hear Trump’s words (perhaps because they can’t bear to listen to him): they will just read them – and on the page, as I said at the start, Trump’s words are just as aggressive as you’d expect. But his demeanour, his tone while delivering them, was self-consciously presidential. So, the question at the heart of a lot of our coaching at Working Voices – does it matter what you say, so long as you sound right? – has a vital relevance today.
Divested of vocal tone, words can come across as more offensive (just think about the number of times you’ve misread the tone of someone else’s email); they can also gain in power. It’s worth remembering that some of the most famous words ever spoken by an American president, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, gained their power and reputation via newspaper transcriptions rather than the power of Lincoln’s voice (his tone was notoriously thin and reedy). Trump’s words this morning, I dare say, will rightly go down as some of the most outrageous he has ever uttered (some achievement).
We often talk about congruence on our courses: the points at which word, sound and look match up with one another, and we urge our clients to aspire to it. But Donald Trump this morning displayed massive amounts of incongruence, to potentially devastating effect. It was a deeply unsettling performance, but also a deeply effective one; and it should give everyone – especially the Democrats – much pause for thought, especially if Trump emerges as the eventual victor in the days and weeks to come.