Here is a video that summarizes this article, if you’d prefer to watch.
Donald Trump’s inauguration speech is an excellent example of how poor delivery can make even a good script sound mediocre. While Trump’s inauguration speechwriters did not write as well as Obama’s farewell speechwriters did, much of the blame falls on Donald for his delivery of the content.
Here’s a link to the transcript of the speech. Read a few lines, skip around a bit, and just imagine yourself delivering those words. Then watch the video of Trump doing the same. Immediately you will see how his delivery leaves much to be desired.
I want to note that I will approach this post with a non-political lens, just like I did for Obama’s farewell speech. The idea is not to discuss the merit of his words, but rather how effective he was in conveying his message. While it may appear that I am being harder on Trump, that is simply not the case. From an objective point of view, his speaking had more flaws than Obama’s.
Overarching problems with the inauguration speech
1. Trump is not good at giving teleprompter speeches
Teleprompters are a huge asset and they make speeches nearly effortless for a good public speaker. But not everyone can use a teleprompter without sounding like they are reading a script. Unfortunately, Donald Trump gave off the impression that he was reading a script instead of delivering a speech.
The examples are subtle, but numerous. Check out 0:45 where he switches from one teleprompter to another in a very robotic motion right at the end of a train of thought. A more obvious example is from 4:50 to 4:52, where he ends a statement and then takes a breath while switching to the other teleprompter.
To properly use a teleprompter, you should try to switch from side to side in the middle of a sentence or thought, not at the end or during a pause.
But transitions weren’t his only issue with the teleprompters. Most of his speech was delivered in a slow, methodical, over-enunciated manner. While poor enunciation is a problem, over enunciation is nearly equally problematic because it comes across as disingenuous and unnatural. From 4:54 to 5:31, see if you can spot what I’m talking about.
2. Trump is not good at managing audience applause
One of the keys in a presidential speech is knowing when to stop for applause, and knowing how to signal that it’s time to clap. Just take a look at 0:30 to 0:40 for an example. When he ends with “for all people”, people start to clap, but he just continues with “together…” and gives them no chance. I chose the earliest example I could, but there are numerous times this happens throughout the speech.
3. Trump’s hand motions are repetitive and distracting
For example, at 0:40, he makes a flippant gesture that most people would use when they are saying “wait, what?” while furrowing their eyebrows. At 0:43 he switches between two different hand positions seemingly randomly, which is quite distracting.
Watch again at 5:35, where he does the same meaningless hand motion sequence three times in a row. At 5:46 when he says “This American carnage stops right here, and right now” he could have used both hands and pointed down to coincide with “right here, and right now”.
Citing specific examples of his hand motion mishaps is almost pointless, because it’s very apparent throughout the inauguration speech.
4. Miscellaneous, smaller issues
Trump used the word “and” poorly several times. One example is 9:37, where he says “We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation.” Using “and” instead of commas was a bad decision (probably made by a speechwriter).
This speech offers a great example of two principles: 1) Practice the speech many times 2) Don’t write sentences that are too long. Just take a look at this sentence turned paragraph:
But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge; and the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.
Now watch him deliver it from 5:02 to 5:42. It appears that he thought the sentence was ending at “knowledge”, and the last item about crime and gangs caught him by surprise. This wouldn’t have occurred if:
- He had practiced more
- The sentence wasn’t so long
- The writer had removed “and the” before “crimes and the gangs”. It would have been clearer that it was meant to be part of the list.
The sniffing throughout the speech was also another trademark Trump problem. Instead of sharply intaking air through his nose, he should consider breathing in with his mouth or breathing slowly through his nose. As humorous as that sounds, I’m serious. It’s distracting.
The line “We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones – and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.” This is getting dangerously close to criticizing political content, but I think everyone can agree that this is transparent hyperbole. Some level of hyperbole is normal in political speeches, but you can only go so far.
At times, he used a tone that indicated he was about to say something big that would cause applause, but then he’d just drop it. A great example is found at 11:28. Four seconds in, he starts to raise his voice to emphasize “we will rediscover our loyalty”, then drops it with “to each other”.
What Trump did well
While Trump’s delivery could have been better, he did some things right.
He varied the volume of his voice and used a slower pace to emphasize certain phrases. An example can be found at 4:15 to 4:27.
When it comes to getting his supporters hyped up for the years to come, the speech does a pretty good job. Although it was overly aggressive and negative for an inauguration speech, it fits into the narrative that Trump has created. His general message was simple: “America has been having these serious problems. My administration will finally listen to you and fix those issues.” You don’t have to agree with him to acknowledge that it’s a good message for his supporters.
Another thing I appreciated was that it was the shortest inauguration speech since Jimmy Carter’s in 1977. Short speeches are almost always better. It is very difficult to keep a modern audience interested for more than 15 minutes, and the worst thing you can do is bore your audience.
The second half of his speech was more positive, which was much needed coming from Trump. Take a look at the following quote:
A new national pride will stir ourselves, lift our sights, and heal our divisions.
It is time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget: that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American Flag.
And whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit or the windswept plains of Nebraska, they look up at the same night sky, they fill their heart with the same dreams, and they are infused with the breath of life by the same almighty Creator.
Trump has a reputation for “dividing the country”, so quotes like those are essential for him to improve his image. While the words will seem disingenuous to people who dislike him, he could turn around perceptions by sticking to this kind of talk (and acting upon it).
The integration of his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again”, was well done. He used a technique called anaphora (the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple sentences).
Together, we will make America strong again.
We will make America wealthy again.
We will make America proud again.
We will make America safe again.
And, yes, together, we will make America great again.
At this point, he did exactly what he needed to: emphasized each word and grew louder, building the energy of the speech and feeding the energy of the audience.
I didn’t know what to expect from Trump’s inauguration speech. His victory speech was probably the best one I’d ever heard him deliver, and I wondered if he would take a similar approach in this one. I think it was right in between his typical speech and the victory speech in terms of aggressiveness and tone.
There are a variety of reasons that Donald Trump won the election. Most of them are out of the boundaries of this website. But ultimately he did not win because he is a good speaker—he is not. It’s because of the simplicity and content of his message. He said exactly what his supporters were looking for, and he said it clearly.
Remember: speaking well is not just about delivery, even though that will always help. It’s also about choosing the right words for the right audience.
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