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Trump’s Acceptance Speech, Republican National Convention, Day Four

Trump’s Acceptance Speech, Republican National Convention, Day Four


Donald Trump confronted an unusually daunting task in this speech:  to satisfy his supporters, eager to see a show of strength; to unify the Republican party behind him, including its moderate establishment members; and to persuade undecided voters, perhaps followers of Bernie Sanders, to back his candidacy.  His address was given against the background of a vituperative primary race and a convention characterized by dark, angry speeches.


According to Aristotle, a speaker persuades through inspiring trust and projecting good moral sense and goodwill.

The negative tone of first three days of the convention would make it difficult for any speaker to pivot to a positive message. Mike Pence did his best to accomplish this on Day Three, but the convention largely has been focused on what Trump’s supporters don’t like (Hillary Clinton, whom they would like to jail or execute), with little attention on what they do like.  Trump did nothing to close this gap.  It is clear that his supporters are united in their disdain for Hillary Clinton, but it is less clear what positive goals they find inspiring.

Trump also did very little in his speech to demonstrate his credibility as a leader, another requirement of ethos.  It is not persuasive to claim, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it,” without actually explaining how the fixing will be done.  His plan to address crime? “I will work with, and appoint, the best prosecutors and law enforcement officials in the country to get the job done.”  His plan to address urban blight?  “When I am President, I will work to ensure that all of our kids are treated equally, and protected equally.”  To fight terrorism? “We are going to defeat the barbarians of ISIS.”  These are noble goals, but they are not plans.  Simply declaring “I am the law and order candidate” does not magically turn you into a candidate capable of creating law and order.  In law school, we require our students to substantiate the claims they make in their oral arguments.  “Believe me” does not suffice.

The biggest boost to Trump’s ethos has come from his children.  They acquitted themselves well at this convention, delivering speeches with charm, good sense, and genuine affection.  They have argued that he is a good father and a good businessperson, and because they appear credible, listeners are more likely to believe those claims.


We’ve seen plenty of pathos, or appeal to emotion, throughout this convention.  As we have argued in previous posts, appeals to positive emotion rather than anger or fear are a more ethical effort of persuasion and likelier to lead to a positive result.

The first three days of the convention were dark, angry, and sometimes frightening.  Trump continued to gin up fear in his remarks.

It is telling to look at the amount of time Trump spent on the various topics in his speech.  Taking the transcript of the remarks as prepared for delivery as our text, one can see that he devoted the most space—over 840 words—on claims that illegal immigrants will kill you.  In second place, at 529 words: the streets are overrun with crime and violence.  Coming in third place, at 456 words: the Middle East is in chaos, and ISIS will kill you.  Fourth place goes to arguments that Hillary Clinton lies or should be jailed (345 words).  And in fifth place, at 306 words?  Only Donald Trump can fix it.  This is classic demagoguery, as we have described here—the rhetorical technique of inciting fear and anger, coupled with the claim that only the speaker can put things right.  Trump spends very little time on normal Republican talking points (lowering taxes, gun rights, religious freedom, coal and steel, school choice, protecting veterans, and cutting out wasteful spending each receive a short paragraph), because this was a speech about feeling, not thinking.

The result?  Listeners tend to finish a speech like this with the same opinion with which they entered the speech.  Those who were already persuaded enjoyed the catharsis of screaming along with Trump.  Those who were on the fence may have tuned out long before the speech ended because it is fatiguing to be yelled at.

Trump was at his best when he spoke about his family.  His affection for his father was palpable, as was his pride in his siblings and children.  He also ad-libbed two lines that made him appealing.  When he spoke of the support of the evangelical community, he quipped, “and I’m not sure I totally deserve it”—a Mike Pence-style joke that worked.  And after the crowd cheered at his promise to protect the LGBTQ community, he said, “I have to say, as a Republican it is so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said.”  In those moments, Trump connected with his audience in a positive way, exhibiting good pathos.


Logos requires a speaker to explain facts clearly to lead to a conclusion.  Trump is easy to follow because he is plain-spoken and conversational.  He promised early on in the speech to lay out the details of his plan, “to present the facts plainly and honestly”—a nod to logos.

It is easier to understand an oral presentation if the sentences are short and the writing vivid.  Trump’s speech includes some good examples of the kind of writing that is easy for the speaker to deliver and for the audience to process.  Take, for example, this passage about the Middle East:

“In 2009, pre-Hillary, ISIS was not even on the map. Libya was cooperating. Egypt was peaceful. Iraq was seeing a reduction in violence. Iran was being choked by sanctions. Syria was under control. After four years of Hillary Clinton, what do we have? ISIS has spread across the region, and the world. Libya is in ruins, and our Ambassador and his staff were left helpless to die at the hands of savage killers. Egypt was turned over to the radical Muslim brotherhood, forcing the military to retake control. Iraq is in chaos. Iran is on the path to nuclear weapons. Syria is engulfed in a civil war and a refugee crisis that now threatens the West. After fifteen years of wars in the Middle East, after trillions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost, the situation is worse than it has ever been before. This is the legacy of Hillary Clinton: death, destruction and weakness.”

Notice how short the sentences are (“Egypt was peaceful.”) and the vivid imagery.  The weakness of the argument is the conclusion—that this is the legacy of Hillary Clinton.  He has not proved that Clinton is the cause of the chaos he describes.  If he were to conclude, instead, with the penultimate sentence, “the situation is worse than it has ever been before,” his logos would be stronger.

Most of the speech was light on substance, and therefore light on logos.  For example, Trump indicated that he would bring back the coal and steel industries without saying how.  He will fix TSA—no details about how.  He will repeal Obamacare—again, no details.  Fact checkers are challenging the few details Trump did offer, such as his statements about the crime rate or the causes of the unrest in the Middle East.  But this really wasn’t a speech about solutions.  It was a speech about fear.

Does resorting to fear matter?  After all, it’s been done before—you might remember Lyndon Johnson’s Daisy ad, implying that a vote for Goldwater would result in nuclear war, or the famous Willie Horton ad, which implied that Michael Dukakis would let rapists roam the streets.

But we think fearmongering is destructive.  When people are frightened or angry, they don’t think clearly or make the best decisions.  And it’s a tone that is unbecoming of a president.  The Republicans are the party of Lincoln, who after the Civil War offered these words:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

That is the quality of character we expect from a president.  This is a tone that makes a speaker persuasive.

The First Three Days of the Republican National Convention

The First Three Days of the Republican National Convention

The Republican National Convention is in full swing. Here are a few rhetorical lessons from the first three days.  (Remember, we are not trying to take political positions in this blog.  Instead, we are taking positions about who speaks well—and who doesn’t.)

Patricia Smith: Care about your topic, but don’t let your emotions overwhelm you.

Patricia Smith, the mother of Sean Smith, who was killed in the 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, gave an emotional speech about her the death of her son.  Her grief was palpable; her anger, even more so: “For all this loss, for all this grief, for all the cynicism the tragedy in Benghazi has wrought upon America, I blame Hillary Clinton.  I blame Hillary Clinton personally for the death of my son.”

The speech was hard to watch because of Ms. Smith’s raw emotion.  Imagine how much more persuasive Ms. Smith could have been if she had been able to hold some of that emotion in check. But because the emotion was uncontrolled, it is easy to dismiss her claims against Clinton as extreme. The danger of the overuse of emotion is that audiences may believe that a speaker in the grip of uncontrolled emotion cannot think clearly; others may resist the speaker’s message because they believe the emotion is being used to manipulate them.

You can watch this misuse of pathos here:

Melania Trump: Why plagiarism became the central story.

Melania Trump, the candidate’s wife, had a tough task in front of her.  She is not a politician herself; nevertheless, she needed to give a speech before a large, rowdy audience in a language that is not her own.  That’s an intimidating prospect for most of us.

When she began her remarks, she employed techniques that can help if you find yourself speaking in a foreign language.  She spoke slowly, which is important if there is a chance that the audience might not understand your words—they need time to get used to your accent.  She paused to let important points land, which also helps with comprehension.  Her eye contact was steady, important when you speak to an American audience, who will perceive you as being more credible if you project physical confidence.

Her logos was less impressive. She made the typical claims a candidate’s wife must make: “He will never give up.” “Donald is, and always has been, an amazing leader.” “Donald thinks big.”  But she also made claims that needed to be substantiated: “Donald wants prosperity for all Americans. We need new programs to help the poor and opportunities to challenge the young. There has to be a plan for growth — only then will fairness result.”  What is the plan?  “Donald intends to represent all the people, not just some of the people. That includes Christians and Jews and Muslims, it includes Hispanics and African Americans and Asians, and the poor and the middle-class.”  Where is the evidence of this?  If Mrs. Trump had provided details—a story to back up her claims, or details of the plans she refers to—then the audience would be more likely to be persuaded.  It is less persuasive to state a position with no evidence to back it up.

Finally, the plagiarism.  This speech caused an uproar when analysts realized that parts of the speech were identical to Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech at the Democratic national convention.  This matters because it takes away from the message Mrs. Trump hoped to communicate; instead, the story became about whether there was cheating, who did it, and what this says about her character or Trump’s campaign. Can one conclude that plagiarism in his wife’s speech proves a lack of moral compass on Donald Trump’s part?  No.  But does this raise ethical questions that make the speaker less credible and the speech less effective?  Yes.  The take-home message from this speech was not that Trump will save the day.  Instead, the message was that of disarray, and, ultimately, embarrassment.

We all make mistakes.  When it is clear you have made one, own up to it clearly and promptly. During the 36 hours after Mrs. Trump’s speech, the story coming from the Trump campaign went every which way—from insistence that the passages weren’t similar to accusations that this was a Hillary Clinton-devised plot to the tale of a staff writer operating on her own.  The final message from—that Mrs. Trump admires Michelle Obama and that they made a mistake—was a much more graceful way to handle the situation.  The various excuses leading up to that transformed what could have been a minor hiccup into a major news story.

You can watch Mrs. Trump’s speech here:


Chris Christie versus Mike Pence: Refrains work; anger has its limits.

On Day Two, Chris Christie exercised his prosecutorial chops to make his party’s case against Hillary Clinton.  This speech is worth watching to see the power of using audience interaction and a pithy refrain.  Christie made point after point about Clinton’s alleged transgressions, punctuating each with the refrain, “Guilty or not guilty?”  As the audience responded, “Guilty!” it became more and more enraged, adding to the energy and punch of Christie’s performance.  The refrain worked to keep the audience’s attention.  It also helped with the logos of the speech, separating Christie’s points from one another to make the structure clear.

However, Christie’s speech is vulnerable to attack on logos grounds.  In a courtroom, opposing counsel would be quick to point out his selective use of facts and places where Christie stretches the truth. You can see a fact-check of the speech here, and an argument that ethical breaches in Christie’s speech disqualify him from serving as the Attorney General in the future here.

Another weakness of the speech—Christie’s tone was over the top.  His delivery was savage, ginning up anger in the audience.  For moderate Republicans or undecided voters, watching the delegates devolve into an angry mob, shouting “Lock her up!” could serve as an uncomfortable reminder of the undercurrent of violence that has permeated Trump’s campaign.

Contrast this tone with the affable, calm tone struck by Mike Pence as he accepted the nomination for the vice-presidency.  Pence used self-deprecating humor to good effect, saying that Trump is “a man known for large personality, a colorful style and lots of charisma.  So I guess he was looking for some balance on the ticket.”  He introduced himself to “those of you who don’t know me, which is most of you.”  He talked fondly of his father, saying that if Dad were with us today, “he’d enjoy this moment—and probably be surprised.”  Self-deprecating humor can help a speaker establish the “good will” that is part of ethos.

Pence also made a case against Clinton, but without any of Christie’s ranting.  For example, he described Clinton as offering a third Obama term, but supported this position by calmly articulating ways in which Clinton’s policies are similar to Obama’s.  He correctly noted that the next president will appoint at least one Supreme Court justice, which may affect issues his party cares about, such as gun control.  And he made a succinct argument that Clinton represents the status quo:  “Over in the other party, if the idea was to present the exact opposite of a political outsider, the exact opposite of an uncalculating truth teller, then on that score you’ve got to hand it to the Democratic establishment, they outdid themselves this time . . . At the very moment when America is crying out for something new and different . . . Democrats are about to anoint someone who represents everything this country is tired of.”  His argument was much more effective than Christie’s because it is pithy, pointed, and calm.

Finally, Pence appealed to positive rather than negative emotions, which is an effective use of pathos.  He struck a theme of unity, both within the Republican party (“with this united party, he’s got backup”) and for all Americans: “I believe we’d do well to remember that what unites us far exceeds anything that sets us apart in America. That we are, as we have always been, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”  While Christie’s speech triggered cries of “Lock her up!,” Pence’s caused the audience to cheer, “We like Mike!” As we have argued here, it is a more productive model of leadership to appeal to positive emotions.

Does Inflammatory Rhetoric Work?

Does Inflammatory Rhetoric Work?

In the 2016 presidential race, Donald Trump seems to have rewritten all the rules. Imagine Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan calling women “fat pigs” or making comments about their menstrual cycles, disparaging a federal judge for being “of Mexican heritage,” or calling for a blockade on Muslims entering the United States because “Islam hates us.”

Trump could make his arguments without cloaking them in this inflammatory language. He could object to a reporter’s questions, critique immigration policies or talk about ways to combat terrorism without playing on his listeners’ deepest fears and prejudices. Instead, he proudly boasts that he is rebelling against “political correctness.” He intersperses his salvos with declarations of love for his supporters, flattering them for their support of his candidacy: “By far, the Trump person, the Trump voter is most loyal.” If that loyalty comes from a vulnerable group, all the better: “We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated.”

His rhetorical habit is designed to diminish the listeners’ abilities to think logically (logos) by triggering their emotions (pathos). This is nothing new. Plato warned against this very practice over 2,000 years ago. Here (in Platonic terms) is why it works against the goals of a representative democracy.

In “Gorgias,” written around 380 B.C., Plato makes the case that rhetoric is potentially destructive if it is mastered by a bad actor. He describes rhetoric as “the habit of a bold and clever mind, which knows how to act in the eyes of the world. I would call it flattery.” The dangerous speaker, in Plato’s eyes, is the one who flatters the mob to manipulate it. In “Phaedrus,” written about 10 years later, Plato postulates the existence of both evil and noble rhetoric. Evil rhetoric uses colorful language to enslave and deceive another, “a universal art of enchanting the mind by arguments.” Noble rhetoric uses language to teach and inspire rather than to cloud truthful thinking.

The point: Rhetoric can move us to good or to evil. Plato feared this power and warned against it.

In the book “Primal Leadership,” about emotional intelligence and leadership, Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee demonstrate that leaders who use dissonant messages trigger the emotional part of our brains — the amygdala, which perceives threats and causes us to fight or take flight. When your amygdala is triggered, it is difficult to think logically; instead your brain is hijacked by anxiety or anger. Leaders with optimistic messages who can stay calm under intense pressure (e.g., “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”) create an environment of trust and fairness, and open up space for you to think. Resonant messages work on your prefrontal lobe, where rational thinking takes place. Dissonant messages — racism, sexism, xenophobia, fear-mongering — can lead to thoughtless reaction and violence.

Trump says, “The current politically correct response cripples our ability to talk and to think and act clearly.” We say inflammatory language cripples the ability to talk, think and act clearly. When leaders reach for fear and anger, aimed at the universal “other” (women, Hispanics, Muslims, the banks, the wealthy, the media, etc.), the message can cause followers to act destructively. Plato warned in “The Republic” that democracy runs the risk of empowering a despot to seize control by fomenting fear and hatred, then presenting himself as the savior of the people against the threatening “other.” The United States, a representative democracy, is vulnerable to the danger Plato identified.

But the design of our nation also contains within it the defenses required to bring down a demagogue. The power of the federal government is limited by the Constitution. The president is checked by two other branches of government. And our elections take place after months of robust debate. People disagree. Journalists and private citizens alike check facts. It is remarkable that even though we have a history of partisan politics, members of Trump’s own party have resisted his inflammatory rhetoric. As Paul Ryan said in response to Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from immigrating to the United States: “I do not think a Muslim ban is in our country’s interest. I do not think it is reflective of our principles, not just as a party, but as a country.”

Here’s the tricky question, though: how do you persuade listeners who have fallen under the spell of demagoguery that they are being manipulated?

In courtroom advocacy, jurors typically see through inflammatory rhetoric because they must sift through all the evidence before they are allowed to cast their votes. Judges offer the jury a framework through which to view the evidence to encourage organized thought. Inflammatory rhetoric is likely to backfire on an attorney who uses it because the judge will curtail it and the jury may be angry at the attempted manipulation.

But there is no requirement in an election that voters pay the same careful attention to facts; in fact, there is some evidence that voters in thrall to a candidate will go to great lengths to explain away facts that might harm their candidate. And voters have more at stake personally than jurors do — they are more likely to feel personally threatened about the outcome of an election than a juror might feel about the outcome of a trial. Trump’s supporters have real grievances — economic fears, loss of power and frustration about their place in a changing world. No one likes to be lectured to or told that they are bigoted or sexist; these sorts of arguments are more likely to anger than persuade.

When you are combatting overwhelming emotions, insisting on a rational framework alone is not enough. Someone in the throes of overwhelming emotions is literally unable to think without a way to shrink the emotions back down to size. Empathy is paramount. Beth Turner, LICSW, a psychiatric social worker at the Austen Riggs Center, says that therapists help clients move from disorganized, overwhelmed emotional states to having minds capable of thinking through using their own emotions and thinking as a bridge from chaotic emotion to manageable thought. This is the concept of “containment,” first articulated by the British analyst Wilfred Bion. For example, she explains, “If you just tell your kid logically there’s no monster in the closet, they probably will feel left alone with their experience of terror. If you first emotionally resonate with the experience of the dark being scary, taking in the experience of terror and using your mind to transmute the terror into something more manageable or understandable, then showing there’s no monster, they may feel contained. The dark isn’t so scary after all.” Similarly, a politician who moves too quickly to logical arguments without first recognizing and empathizing with the emotional state of the people runs the risk of leaving people emotionally “uncontained” and unable to use their minds to think in an organized way.

Our nation has historically done a pretty good job of electing leaders who aren’t demagogues, even though we have never agreed unanimously on who the leader should be. Our election system, which relies on robust debate over a period of months, is designed to encourage voters to grapple with facts. Not all will, but many will. The best defense against fearmongering is speaking the truth. Opponents of any demagogue should aspire to the “noble rhetoric” described by Plato, which we argue includes a resonant, uplifting message (not fearmongering in kind); a fair recitation of facts; calm in the fact of hatred and panic; empathy; and patience. Perhaps not everyone in thrall to a demagogue will be persuaded, but enough of us will to be able to stop him.

Lessons from Aristotle: How to Judge Political Rhetoric

Lessons from Aristotle: How to Judge Political Rhetoric

What should you watch for in the coming debates between the two presidential candidates? Here’s what Aristotle might say.

Aristotle is one of the first people on the planet to write about how verbal persuasion works, and his formulation in “The Rhetoric” continues to provide useful guidance to aspiring orators. Aristotle said a speaker persuades using three tools:

Ethos, or credibility. Aristotle wrote, “Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character, when the speech is spoken as to make us think him more credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others. There are three things which inspire confidence in the orator’s own character: Good sense, good moral character, and good will.” If you trust and like a speaker, you are more likely to believe him or her.

Pathos, or emotional engagement. Aristotle wrote, “Persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions.” A speaker who is able to get the audience to care about what she says is more persuasive.

Logos, or logic. Aristotle wrote, “Persuasion is effected through the speech itself when we have proved a truth or an apparent truth by means of the persuasive arguments suitable to the case in question.” To persuade listeners, a speaker’s logic must be clear and easy to follow.

Hillary Clinton

Ethos: Ethos is both Clinton’s greatest strength and at the same time her greatest vulnerability. To be credible, a speaker must know about a topic. Clinton has tremendous experience through her service as a U.S. senator, the secretary of state, and as the first lady. As President Obama said in his endorsement of her, “I don’t think there’s ever been someone so qualified to hold this office.” She is tough, intelligent and clearly understands the importance of preparation — witness, for example, her performance during the 11-hour hearing by the Senate’s Select Committee on Benghazi, in which she displayed a mastery of facts and policy. When Clinton speaks, her preparation and experience cloak her in authority.

But Clinton also comes to this election weighed down by the baggage of many years in the public eye. Trump’s label of “Crooked Hillary” is a direct attack on her ethos, and reminds the public of various ethics-related accusations made against Clinton or her husband, such as stories about foreign contributions to the Clinton Foundation, Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, and the impeachment of her husband arising out of his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Even when allegations of ethical misdeeds have proved unfounded, the sense that the Clintons are shady characters has stuck. This is an ethos problem; to counteract it, Clinton would be wise to be as forthcoming and frank as possible in all her campaign appearances.

Pathos: This is another area of both strength and weakness for Clinton. In the plus column, Clinton’s nomination for the presidency is a historic moment. She is the first female candidate nominated by a major political party. The prospect of a woman shattering the “highest, hardest glass ceiling” has galvanized many supporters and packs an emotional punch.

But Clinton also triggers strongly negative emotions in those who oppose her. “I’d vote for the devil before I would ever vote for that woman,” says one Trump supporter. Some of the vitriol aimed at Clinton bears a decidedly misogynistic tone — she has been labeled a shrew, a bitch, a harpy and a castrator (“I cross my legs involuntarily every time she comes on the air,” said Tucker Carlson).

Clinton also lacks the rhetorical skills of her husband or President Obama. Her delivery can be alternately flat or irritable, and she appears more comfortable with logical arguments than with emotional appeals. This is not universally the case, though — witness her fine victory speech as the presumptive nominee, which you can watch here. To be at her most persuasive, Clinton should aim for this level of emotional engagement in all her speeches.

Logos. In this area, Clinton shines. She has a lawyer’s mind, and knows how to make a logical, clear argument. We expect Clinton to show great strength in the debates in the area of logos.

Donald Trump

Ethos: Trump’s supporters find him to be credible because they believe he has business acumen and “tells it like it is.” Trump is willing to say things that are not politically correct; consequently, he appears frank and authentic to those who support him.

However, Trump lacks experience in governing. He has never held an elected office. He has no foreign policy experience. To maintain credibility, he will need to show how his business experience qualifies him for the position of president.

Finally, many Americans believe Trump lacks the “good moral sense” and “good will” that are foundational to Aristotle’s concept of ethos. He has a complicated backstory — he runs gambling casinos, has a history of marital infidelity and has been less than forthright about his own business success. And rather than demonstrate goodwill, he routinely denigrates those who disagree with him with xenophobic, racist and sexist attacks (a woman is a “fat pig,” “dog,” “disgusting” or a “beautiful piece of ass”; Mexicans are “rapists” bringing drugs; a federal judge overseeing a lawsuit against Trump cannot be objective because his parents emigrated from Mexico; Muslims should be banned from entering the country). Without a moral center, it is difficult to achieve ethos.

Pathos: During the primary race, Trump has done a better job than Clinton at galvanizing his supporters. His campaign appearances are marked by the high energy and enthusiasm of his followers. He is able to get his crowds to laugh and to cheer.

But he has also demonstrated the dark side of emotional engagement by fanning the flames of bigotry, misogyny and xenophobia. Plato warned against the teaching of rhetoric for precisely this sort of reason — he worried that it could be used to inflame a mob. Euripides described the problem like this: “A man of loose tongue, intemperate, trusting to tumult, leading the populace to mischief with empty words.” If he hopes to become presidential, Trump should drop the inflammatory language. He is charismatic enough to keep his listeners engaged without resorting to hate-filled discourse. (We promise a more complete analysis of the dark side of pathos in a future blog post.)

Logos: Trump’s proposals during the primaries have been largely devoid of any substance on which his logos could be judged. However, he uses plain language that listeners can easily follow, even if it is not always logical. He has gotten into trouble for making bombastic statements (such as when he said women should be punished if they get abortions), that he has later retracted. He will have to fill in the details of his proposals and lay them out clearly to the American people if he wants to succeed in his campaign.

The Vice-Presidential Debate: What Will You Remember?

The Vice-Presidential Debate: What Will You Remember?

That “whoosh” you may have heard last night was a collective sigh of relief, as Democrats across the country watched their vice-presidential candidate come out swinging. After President Obama’s low-energy performance during the first presidential debate, Democrats were itching for a show of strength from their ticket, and Joe Biden did not disappoint. But this morning, you may be hearing a different noise—a buzz of commentators asking, “Did he go too far?”

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First Presidential Debate

First Presidential Debate

Last night’s presidential debate was a pleasure to watch. President Obama and Governor Romney have extensive debate experience—over 50 debates between them—and the wonky political knowledge that a candidate must master to exude credibility. Both were able to project power, articulate complicated ideas clearly, and engage the audience. But Romney’s performance had a little extra pizzazz, a more deftly crafted message, and the energy that comes when a speaker knows that he is doing well, which let him carry the night.

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Plato, YouTube and Muhammad: When the Rules of Rhetoric Clash with Free Speech

Plato, YouTube and Muhammad: When the Rules of Rhetoric Clash with Free Speech

Plato hated rhetoric.  He worried that it made the “worse appear the better reason,” that it was a form of “flattery” designed to pull the wool over the eyes of the ignorant multitudes.

He conceded that rhetoric could be done well if the speaker was careful to speak the truth about what he said, if he took the time to explain his terms, if he paid attention to structure, and if he designed his speech to be appropriate for his particular audience.  Mostly, though, he worried about the inflammatory nature of rhetoric and the susceptibility of the audience to turn into a mob under the right circumstances.  Euripides described the problem like this:  “A man of loose tongue, intemperate, trusting to tumult, leading the populace to mischief with empty words.”

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The Democratic National Convention, Day Three: The Main Attraction — Barack Obama

The Democratic National Convention, Day Three: The Main Attraction — Barack Obama

The build-up was intense: Eloquent speeches by Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton and others; then a moving video tribute narrated by George Clooney.

The expectation was high. Obama has already delivered some of the most memorable speeches of his generation.

The president did not disappoint. Here’s how he came through:

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The Democratic National Convention, Day Three: Joe Biden Learns It’s Hard to Follow Clinton

The Democratic National Convention, Day Three: Joe Biden Learns It’s Hard to Follow Clinton

Joe Biden is capable of delivering a moving, inspiring speech. This was not his best.

Biden tried to establish an emotional connection with his audience by starting the talk as many of the speakers at these conventions have, by describing his love for his family. His declaration of love for his wife, whom he called “Kitten,” seemed oddly out-of-place for a formal speech, and went on for far too long. You can watch it here: 

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The Democratic National Convention, Day One: Starting With a Bang

The Democratic National Convention, Day One: Starting With a Bang

The first day of the Democratic National Convention was a pleasure for fans of rhetoric to watch. Many of the presentations were emotionally powerful and delivered superbly. (The terms that you’ll see in parentheses are Aristotle’s concepts of effective persuasion: ethos, or credibility; pathos, or emotional engagement; and logos, or logic. See our previous posts for more about these concepts.) Note how many of these hit some of the arguments that we listed in our previous post.  Speeches worth noting:

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Mitt Romney’s Etch A Sketch Problem: Why it is Difficult to Change Stories Mid-Campaign

Mitt Romney’s Etch A Sketch Problem: Why it is Difficult to Change Stories Mid-Campaign

You may recall a memorable moment in the Romney campaign back in March, when senior advisor Eric Fehrnstrom described the transition from the primaries to the general election as an opportunity for his candidate to reinvent himself:

 Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.

Admitting to this plan was roundly criticized as folly, but candidates traditionally must fine-tune (or even significantly overhaul) their messages as they transition from the primary race to the general election. The conventions offer a candidate the opportunity to introduce himself to voters who do not yet know him, and focus attention on his central themes.

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Using “Women” in the Republican National Convention

Using “Women” in the Republican National Convention

It was striking how many of the key speakers at the Republican National Convention reached for the theme of the importance of women.  In speech after speech, we heard about the dominant role that mothers have played in shaping the lives of these political figures: Chris Christie’s Sicilian mom, “the enforcer,” who taught him to speak “the truth, bluntly, directly and without much varnish”; Paul Ryan’s mom, who demonstrated true grit by earning a degree and starting a business after the death of his father; Mitt Romney’s mom, who ran for the Senate, telling her son, “Why should women have any less say than men, about the great decisions facing our nation?”  And we watched motherhood personified by Ann Romney, mother of five sons, who raised them during a time when Mitt traveled extensively for work. “”I’d call and try to offer support,” Mitt Romney explained. “But every mom knows that doesn’t help get the homework done or the kids out the door to school.”

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The Republican National Convention, Day Three: Mitt Romney Accepts the Nomination

The Republican National Convention, Day Three: Mitt Romney Accepts the Nomination

The Republican National Convention, Day Three: Mitt Romney Accepts the Nomination
The first half of Day Three of the Republican National Convention (or at least the part that was actually broadcast on network TV) was a bizarre train-wreck. Surprise guest Clint Eastwood may prove to be the most vivid memory that many viewers will take away from Mitt Romney’s big day, with his incoherent speech that included a strange (and off-color) dialogue with an invisible, imaginary Barack Obama. Florida’s Marco Rubio offered a speech that focused mostly on himself, made memorable by a flub that seemed to endorse bigger government, and with very little focus on the candidate he was meant to support. Mitt Romney himself did an adequate job with his acceptance speech, but we suspect that viewers will not remember it as vividly as they will the bizarre presentations that preceded him that night.

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The Republican National Convention, Day Two: Paul Ryan, Condoleezza Rice Set the Bar High

The Republican National Convention, Day Two: Paul Ryan, Condoleezza Rice Set the Bar High

Republicans were treated to two powerhouse speeches during the second day of their national convention.  Condoleezza Rice and Paul Ryan both demonstrated a flair for verbal persuasion, but in two very different ways.  Their speeches, taken side by side, show that there are many paths to the top of the rhetorical mountain.  The trick is to choose the one that suits your own personal, authentic style.

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The Republican National Convention, Day One: Ann Romney Overshadows Chris Christie

The Republican National Convention, Day One: Ann Romney Overshadows Chris Christie

The two most notable speeches during the first day of the Republican National Convention came from Ann Romney, the candidate’s wife, and from Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey and the keynote speaker of the convention. Despite Gov. Christie’s ease at the podium and reputation as a terrific speaker, Ann Romney — neither a politician nor a professional orator — outshone him. Here’s how:

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A Campaign Scorecard: Grading the Candidate’s Rhetoric

A Campaign Scorecard: Grading the Candidate’s Rhetoric

A presidential campaign offers the perfect opportunity to better understand how verbal persuasion works in action. The party conventions, political debates and various campaign speeches are exercises in rhetoric. The candidates and their supporters will try to persuade you of the wisdom of their positions; you may engage in a little political debating of your own with friends and family. If you know how rhetoric works, you will be better positioned to evaluate the political campaigning that you hear, and to make some successful arguments yourself.

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How Ethos Changes Everything: A Lesson from Aristotle for John Edwards

How Ethos Changes Everything: A Lesson from Aristotle for John Edwards

A jury on Thursday declared John Edwards to be not guilty of misusing campaign money, and deadlocked on five other charges against him. It is unlikely that the government will retry Edwards, so this may mark the end of Edwards’ legal battle against charges that he violated campaign finance laws by accepting enormous sums of money to hide his pregnant mistress from his wife, Elizabeth, who was dying of cancer. This was a case that turned most Americans’ stomachs — even those who defended Edwards’ actions under the law were disturbed by his lack of moral compass.

After the verdict (or lack thereof) was announced, John Edwards made a speech on the courthouse steps.

Edwards is a gifted orator, who first made his name as an attorney with a magical ability to connect with a jury. As one might expect, Edwards’ speech was crafted well, illustrating several rules of effective verbal persuasion. But that uneasy feeling that you may have experienced watching proves something that Aristotle first told us over 2,000 years ago: To persuade an audience, you must exhibit the highest moral character, or ethos. Your good reputation, once lost, will be difficult to regain, and your advocacy will suffer for it.

First, the good things. Edwards’ speech is easy to follow because it has a clean, clear structure. He makes only a few points, each separated from the other by a pause and an obvious transition statement. First, he thanks the jury for its service. Second, he apologizes for his moral transgressions. Third, he expresses love for his children and his parents. And finally, he hints as work that he plans to do in the future — perhaps to atone for sins, or perhaps to attempt a political comeback. A speech will be stronger if you choose a few simple points that you want to make, and if you write the presentation so that each is distinct from the other, as Edwards has done.

Edwards expresses humility by using simple language. He paints a picture of family life with his kids, Jack and Emma Clair, “who I take care of every day, and … get their breakfast ready, get ”em off to school, and then we get home at night and we all eat supper together.” He talks about his faithful parents, who “tromp up here from Robbins, North Carolina every day to be with me,” and his courageous daughter, Cate, “who loves her mother so, so much.” Choosing simple, everyday words can make a speech more powerful and a speaker more accessible.

As you watch the speech, you may find it difficult to take your eyes off Edwards’ elderly parents, standing to one side of him, and his daughter Cate, who stands on the other. Their faces, especially his father’s, show emotion that Edwards attempts to articulate, and it breaks your heart to see the pain that flashes in his father’s expression during various points in the speech. Good trial lawyers know that people are much more likely to believe things if they see them. This speech proves that point—visuals grab our attention. You notice what you see, and you remember it.

Which brings us to the way in which the speech falls short. The wordless emotion that Edwards’ family conveys seems so much more genuine than anything that Edwards himself can achieve, because we cannot forget what we know about Edwards. Even his apology is carefully crafted to protect him from legal trouble, which reminds you that this man is, of course, a lawyer: “While I do not believe I did anything illegal, or ever thought I was doing anything illegal, I did an awful, awful lot that was wrong and there is no one else responsible for my sins.” Would it be possible for him to say anything that could make you forget the pain that he has inflicted on his family, especially his dying wife, or the hubris that he exhibited in pursuing and the hiding the affair? Probably not. Listeners view every speech through the prism of what they already know about the speaker. Aristotle would tell Edwards that he needs to shore up that ethos of his. Go help those poor kids that Edwards speaks of at the end of the speech. His words might mean more once he does.

GOP’s “Basketball” Ad Finds Way to Go Negative on Obama — the Right Way

GOP’s “Basketball” Ad Finds Way to Go Negative on Obama — the Right Way

Today, Crossroads GPS, the conservative group founded by Karl Rove, released a new political ad criticizing President Obama, which will be aired widely across the country. The ad is also the work of Larry McCarthy, the producer of the questionable “Willie Horton” ad from 1988 — the one that played on racial fears by featuring images of a scary-looking African-American man as it accused Michael Dukakis of being soft on crime. With a pedigree like that, you might expect to see some bloodshed in this offering. But the Crossroads ad, called “Basketball,” shows surprising subtlety compared to other
ads prominent Republicans and the Tea Party have been offering voters of late. The Tea Party and other Republican groups should take note: “Basketball” plays well because it follows the basic rules of persuasion: Engage the audience’s reason and emotions.

The ad’s tone is surprisingly levelheaded. It doesn’t require you to hate President Obama, or to believe that he is evil, or a Muslim, or a radical bent on turning us all Socialist, or any of the other nonsense that the Tea Party or the more extreme corners of the Republican Party like to espouse. Instead, it tells the story of a pretty mother who loves to watch her kids play basketball. This mother says that she “supported President Obama because he spoke so beautifully. He promised change.” She liked him, she says. That rhetorical approach will keep audience members who also harbor a soft spot for
President Obama listening. The ad is illustrating a basic rule of classical rhetoric best articulated by the Greek historian (and political analyst) Thucydides, and well-known to successful trial lawyers: Don’t risk losing the confidence of your audience by picking a needless battle. Instead, figure out what you absolutely must argue in order to win and argue the heck out of that.

Then, in the blink of an eye, the pretty mother ages and the kids grow up. We see that her kids are now grown adults who “can’t find jobs to get their careers started, and I can’t afford to retire. And now we’re all living together again.” This is a terrific way to engage our emotions. “Basketball” puts its finger on exactly the fears that plague many Americans right now — the terror of students equipped with college degrees, weighed down by enormous debt and no job prospects; the anxiety of parents who see no way to ever stop working. If the writers had added in a dad who’d been laid off and now
can’t find a job because of his age, they would have achieved a perfect trifecta of the real struggles that many Americans face right now. And the neat visual effect of fast-forwarding the family from an idyllic childhood period to a more-bleak present provides compelling drama.

“Basketball” also employs a clever rhetorical twist by turning Obama’s 2008 election messages — “Change We Can Believe In” and “Yes We Can” — on their head. The mom tells us, “He promised change, but things have changed for the worse.” “Change” is something the family has suffered, not enjoyed, as the kids have grown and their prospects have shrunk. “Basketball” reminds voters of the disappointment they may have experienced in the years following the 2008 election.

The ad is weakest in terms of logic. Several claims are factually inaccurate, such as its declaration that the president’s health care law — most of which has not yet taken effect — has made health insurance more expensive. It accuses the president of “spending like our credit cards have no limits,” while ignoring the disastrous economic decisions made before Obama took office that arguably necessitated the spending. The ad also falsely implies that the president taxes and spends because he is unaware of the pain of the average American family, when in fact he would argue that this is what motivates his policies.

But “Basketball” is memorable because it strikes a tone that will resonate with many viewers, particularly those experiencing the hardships that are featured in it. It is an effort to reach the middle— those undecided voters who want things to change for the better, but are not yet sure how to make that happen. “Basketball” shows how negative ads work best — not by shouting and sarcasm, but by reason and empathy.

Molly Bishop Shadel is a professor of oral advocacy and rhetoric at the University of Virginia School of Law and is co-author of “Tongue-Tied America: Reviving the Art of Verbal Persuasion.”

How To Craft a Commencement Address: Steve Jobs’ 2005 Speech at Stanford University

How To Craft a Commencement Address: Steve Jobs’ 2005 Speech at Stanford University

It is graduation season, and across the country nervous keynote speakers are scrambling to write that perfect commencement address. How to do it well? If you are looking for a model of a stand-out graduation speech, you will want to watch Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement address to Stanford University.

Here is why it works.

A fundamental rule of speechmaking: Choose a topic that you care about, and figure out how to make your audience care about it, too. Jobs selected as his theme the importance of doing what you love and trusting yourself—a commonplace graduation topic made extraordinary by the personal, often humbling examples that Jobs offered from his own life.

By focusing on moments of failure, rather than moments of success, Jobs instantly connected with his audience. Steve Jobs was the founder of Apple Computers. He could have spoken of his multi-billion dollar fortune, the success and innovations of his companies, the role of technology in the future. He chose instead to talk about a handful of critical points in his life, moments of disappointment that his listeners could imagine suffering themselves. Suddenly, the multi-billion dollar innovator and pioneer of business became Everyman, a real person, making it easier to relate to and appreciate his advice. His tale resonated with the audience because there was nothing self-aggrandizing in it; he spoke of personal things because he wanted the audience to know and understand him. His credibility level, or ethos, was high from the outset because of his earnest desire to reach the audience.

His advice sticks because the stories illustrating it are unexpected and deeply personal. A speech is more likely to make an impression if you grab the audience’s attention from the beginning rather than wasting time with needless wind-up. Jobs accomplished this by promising “three stories from my life. No big deal, just three stories.” He took the audience by surprise when he confessed his lack of academic credentials—the speech at Stanford University was the closest he had come to graduating college. He then spoke of the unusual circumstances surrounding his adoption. He revealed an admirable strength of character as he explained that, despite the significance that his birth-mother placed on receiving a college education, he could not bear to see his working-class adoptive parents spend their life savings sending him to college. He opted instead to take a few part-time classes in subjects that interested him, which is how he found himself in a calligraphy class at Reed College.

That class became the basis for various for various fonts on the Apple operating system, the first system to have multiple typographies. And so Jobs began to weave his theme: Unconventional choices can offer opportunity if you look for it.

Jobs described how he was ousted from Apple Computer, the company he founded, and the uncertainty and shame that he suffered. As you listen to this portion of the speech, notice how adeptly he struck the perfect tone—likeable and credible. He revealed no trace of bitterness towards Apple or the executive who replaced him. Jobs explained that he came to view his departure from Apple as liberating, because it freed him to think about what he loved doing and forced him to do it (leading him to found the innovative, Oscar-winning film company, Pixar Studios).

Finally, Jobs spoke being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (the disease that ultimately took his life on October 5, 2011). He revealed grim details of his diagnosis and his fears about telling his family he might not live much longer. In a miraculous turn of events, Jobs survived the cancer at that time and was offered a second chance. By sharing this personal experience with the listeners, Jobs made that second chance theirs as well. Jobs implored graduates to remember that time is finite and to make the most of it.

Jobs’ stories were memorable because they were unexpected, humbling, and hopeful. His personal anecdotes were not widely known before he gave this speech, which left the audience feeling as if it were being let in on a secret. Jobs chose a topic that was meaningful to him; exhibited ethos in his modesty and honesty; captured attention by offering surprising tidbits of information; and ultimately packed an emotional punch through his willingness to be vulnerable. Instead of a formal commencement address, Jobs offered a warm, intimate, and compelling lecture about life. That is why, years later, you can see still his closing lines printed on bumper stickers or T-shirts:

“Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”

Mourdock Must Toss Tough Talk to Appeal to Indiana Voters

Mourdock Must Toss Tough Talk to Appeal to Indiana Voters

Many saw Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock’s defeat of six-term incumbent
Richard Lugar in last week’s Indiana GOP primary as another sign of the death of bipartisanship. Lugar was known for his willingness to work across party lines, while Mourdock caters to the Tea Party crowd. Pundits believe that Mourdock may yet play a central role in the Republican effort to take control of the Senate. But Mourdock may have a tough time winning a Senate seat unless he abandons the Tea Party’s “No compromises” rhetoric.

In interviews with The New York Times, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and local papers, Mourdock has pulled no punches. “The time for collegiality has passed. It’s time for confrontation,” he has said. “I certainly think bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view. […] Bipartisanship means they have to come our way […] To me, the highlight of politics, frankly, is to inflict my opinion on someone else with a microphone or in front of a camera.”

This rhetorical strategy has proved popular with Tea Party candidates intent on venting political frustrations and firing up like-minded voters. But Mourdock’s bombast violates the three most time-honored canons of verbal rhetoric, and it won’t appeal to mainstream voters.

First, to be persuasive over time, a speaker must project credibility, or what the classical Greek orators called ethos. Credibility is about commanding respect and trust by showing balance, judgment and calm. Mourdock has taken the opposite approach: His charges are jarring, designed to appeal only to his steadfast followers. Mourdock himself said in a recent TV interview that 60 percent of voters do not identify themselves as conservatives at all. Despite the weakness of his “my way or the highway” approach, Mourdock promises conflict over calm. This mismatch of reality and speaking style hurts the Republican’s credibility.

Second, a speaker must strike an emotional chord with his audience (pathos). But if the speaker attempts to incite feelings of hatred or anger, audience members who are not yet persuaded will mistrust this manipulation. Similarly, if the speaker appears to be in the grip of his own, overwhelming emotion, then his judgment appears clouded. Mourdock commits both of these errors. Language this outsized conjures up the specter of a speaker and an audience out of control. It may motivate hardline primary voters, but it will likely harm Mourdock’s attempts to appeal to the middle.

Third, advocates must pass the test of common sense (logos). They must provide facts and
logic to support their positions. Mourdock does neither. Very few voters believe we need more gridlock in Congress. The public’s approval of legislators is barely in double digits, and polls attest to Americans’ overwhelming dissatisfaction with bipartisan acrimony and the resulting legislative gridlock. Under Mourdock’s warped logic, this problem is the solution.

Mourdock has said his campaign is about two central goals: limited government and less federal spending. These goals have been obscured by Mourdock’s rhetoric of confrontation, but he can still salvage his message by following the classical rules for public speaking:

We face urgent problems. I intend to devote my full energy to helping make progress on all of them. I hope Americans of all political stripes will join in this effort. But solutions cannot come at the price of sacrificing cherished values and principles. Mine include two first and foremost: We must reign in the size and power of the federal government; and we cannot continue to spend more than, by any rational view, we can afford.

That’s the kind of message that will make Mourdock appear more credible to mainstream voters.

How to Make an Apology: A Lesson from Aristotle to Mitt Romney

How to Make an Apology: A Lesson from Aristotle to Mitt Romney

We all need to fess up on occasion. It’s important to do it well. The great architects of classical rhetoric are wincing: Mitt got it all backward.

This week The Washington Post reported that presidential candidate Mitt Romney bullied a classmate in high school, leading a pack of students who held the boy down and cut off his blonde hair as the boy cried. Romney issued two responses to the story; first, a denial via his spokesperson Andrea Saul, who said, “The stories of 50 years ago seem exaggerated and off-base, and Governor Romney has no memory of participating in these incidents,” and second, in an interview on Fox Radio, in which he apologized for his behavior. Sort of.

The story has now shifted to the apology itself. People are skeptical. This is because it violates fundamental rules of verbal persuasion.

Aristotle, the world’s first expert on public speaking, wrote more than 2,000 years ago that a speaker must exhibit ethos, or credibility. How do you show you are credible? You tell the truth and show character by grappling with bad facts head-on. If we question your ethos, we will question what you say and whether you are fit to lead others.

Romney’s apology lacks credibility for several reasons.

First, apologists must get their stories straight. Romney’s message wandered from dismissing the claim as “exaggerated” to “off base,” to a story that he has “no memory” of, to “I did some stupid things,” to “I’ve seen the reports; I’m not going to argue with that,” to “If anybody was hurt by that or offended by that, obviously I apologize.” These various statements send the wrong signals. You will be more credible if you offer a coherent narrative.

Second, the apology must make sense. Five classmates, one-time friends of Romney, say on the record that they remember the incident as a vicious attack on an “easy-pickins’” target that has “haunted” them ever since. Romney asks us to believe he has no recollection of holding down a boy and cutting off his hair even though numerous witnesses recall it vividly. Romney compounds the problem by taking the position that he was unaware of the boy’s homosexuality because, “that was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s.” Now we must accept that 17-year-old boys in the 1960s did not talk about anyone being fey, effeminate or “homo.” That’s too much to ask us to believe. Even if Romney was not positive of the boy’s sexual orientation, he certainly perceived him as different. As he reportedly told his friend before attacking the boy, “He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!” This is the second lesson of ethos: You cannot pretend away bad facts. If you try, you lose credibility.

The third lesson of ethos: When you make an apology, take ownership of your actions. Romney apologizes “if anybody was offended”— that is, for others’ emotional reactions — but he does not apologize for his own behavior. He shirks responsibility for a terrifying attack, diminishes the pain that he caused by calling his actions “pranks” and never admits that he did anything wrong.

The final lesson of ethos in apologies: Keep a straight face. Romney laughed during his radio interview when he said, “I don’t remember that incident and I’ll tell you I certainly don’t believe that I…thought the fellow was homosexual,” and laughs again when he says (when asked if he taunted another gay classmate by calling out “atta girl” if the boy spoke in class), “Well, I really can’t remember that. You know my guess is a lot of time in my years in my boarding school where boys who do something and people say, he says, ‘atta girl’ [sic].” His chuckling may be an expression of discomfort over the topic of homosexuality, or perhaps it is an effort to indicate how ridiculous he perceives the claims to be. But listeners — particularly those to whom he purports to apologize — are likely to hear the laughter as as sign that the apology is not genuine.

Apologizing is difficult at any time. But when it is this public, the speaker should craft a careful apology so that he won’t flub it under pressure. It should be short, active and to the point: “I did stupid things in high school. I did not have the judgment of an adult when I was a teenager. I am embarrassed now to think back on the pain I must have caused. I am sorry.”

Molly Shadel and Robert Sayler are professors of oral advocacy and rhetoric at the University of Virginia School of Law. They are the co-authors of “Tongue-Tied America: Reviving the Art of Verbal Persuasion.”