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. 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 the campaign—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.