“The best speakers understand how to grip an audience by flexing their style”.
Republican National Convention 2020: The Importance of Adapting To A Virtual Environment
Under normal circumstances, the 2020 Republican and Democratic National Conventions would have been played out in front of immense crowds in vast arenas. This year, however, Covid-19 put paid to that: the heady cocktail of glitz and glamour replaced by a sober mocktail of addresses to camera and pre-recorded speeches. That said, it was still a tremendous opportunity to appeal to the American electorate.
Of all the speakers at the RNC, I was particularly intrigued to watch Donald Trump Jr, the eldest son of the President. With a combative, often abrasive style near identical to that of his father, Donald Jr. has proven to be a popular figure with Trump supporters and a firebrand in US politics.
You may agree or disagree with his views – the content of his speech was always going to be divisive – but this article isn’t about that. As content is only one ingredient of successful communication, here’s what occurred to me while watching his speech.
Adapting to the Setting
It may seem obvious, but because we don’t always present in the same setting, we need to adapt our style to complement the situation. At Body Talk, we deliver similar content in a variety of settings – from 1-1 coaching to masterclasses for hundreds of people. Each requires a different approach.
The format of this year’s convention was always going to be a challenge for the speakers. Donald Jr. in particular seems most at home in front of large crowds; he feeds off their energy.
In writing this article, I also watched his speech at the 2016 RNC, to understand how he might have adapted his style to suit this year’s setting. In short, he didn’t. He was still direct and uncompromising, voice raised as if projecting to the back of an arena. The problem is, it was too much – most of his audience were at home on the sofa.
I can still recall my first TV audition. As a theatre actor, I was used to ensuring my performance reached the back row, and I was quickly told that I was being “too big” for the camera. Screen acting calls for a subtlety that isn’t required in the theatre: I had to make my performance “smaller” to suit the medium.
Rather like my audition, Donald Jr’s performance lacked the intimacy and subtlety required. No major changes in the content were necessary, only an understanding that this different setting needed a change of approach.
As soon as we start to speak, our audience will ask themselves “why should I listen to you?” It’s vital that we answer this by establishing our personal credibility as early as possible, in order to build trust and rapport with the people we’re speaking to.
In the opening of his speech at the 2016 Republican National Congress, Donald Jr. gave a clear sense of his personal background and relationship with his father. Like him or not, it was clear that he had credibility.
This year he established nothing, stating only his name before launching into the speech. His credibility was left to a banner on the screen which simply read “Donald Trump Jr. Son of President Trump.”
Some might argue that there was no need to establish credibility here since Donald Jr. is well known amongst Trump supporters. But what about those outside of this group? This was a national TV broadcast watched by millions, including vital swing voters who would determine the outcome of the election. Did that element of the audience think “OK, I’m prepared to accept what you have to say?” My guess would be no.
Perhaps in his 10-minute slot, he felt there wasn’t time to build personal credibility. It’s tempting to skip over this when we feel under time pressure. But put yourself in your audience’s position. If you don’t know who you are listening to or understand their intentions, how likely are you to trust what they have to say?
In an arena setting, Donald Jr’s pugilistic style is often accompanied by raucous cheers and applause. The effect of the audience’s energy on a speaker can be huge, transforming a seemingly ordinary speech into something special. Without a crowd to spur him on, however, his speech became very one-paced.
Variety stimulates us and the best speakers understand how to grip an audience by flexing their style.
A good analogy is a rollercoaster. The most exciting part is the drop, but if the entire ride was like that, it would soon lose its appeal. So, rollercoasters take you on a journey – from the excitement of the climb at the start, through the moments of anticipation at the top, before the euphoria of the drop. There may be a loop-the-loop, a section in reverse, but whatever the individual elements, it’s the combination that leaves you wanting more.
There’s nothing wrong with showing anger or frustration as Donald Jr. did, but if that’s all you show, the effect on the audience is diminished. It’s much better as part of a mix.
This year’s presidential race will be like no other. The Covid-19 pandemic has taken an extraordinarily personal toll on the people of America and for many, traditional party allegiances have been called into question. How successfully the politicians communicate their ideas to American voters will be a key element in their success or failure.
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