Tag Archives: Nonverbal Communication

The President’s Speech: SOTU 2018

President Trumps 2018 State of the Union speech was one of the worst-delivered speeches I’ve ever seen. Note I said, “delivered,” not “written.” I have yet to read the transcript from beginning to end.

The next day, I was on the radio to discuss it, made my case, and the host pushed back, telling me a CBS poll had said 75% of respondents approved of the speech. I wasn’t moved. I know what I know.

Let me explain why the speech was a failure from the delivery standpoint. The core reason is that so-called speaking from the heart requires the speaker to be in touch with one. That’s the intangible reason. But there are tangible reasons, as well, that every speaker should learn. Here they are…

  • He clearly didn’t practice: This is a badge of honor for him, which is ridiculous and a disservice to his audiences. It is something the best speakers get right, which is why there are so few of them.
  • He didn’t sound like he’d read it through from beginning to end. Some words seemed to surprise him, like Scourge, which he pronounced Skorge. (See #1.)
  • The body language was all wrong, particularly facial expression. He seemed angry and scowled throughout. Also, his applauding of his own words was particularly off-putting and his incitement of the GOP members to chant, “USA, USA” was completely inappropriate. This was not a campaign rally.
  • His rate and pacing were plodding. These speeches are always on the long side and this one was much too long. It didn’t have to be. A moderate pace is about 140 words per minute. Including the frequent prolonged applause interruptions (common), this one was 65 wpm. If we are generous and subtract the applause, that brings us to about 100 wpm. This is much too slow and another result of #1.
  • His voice is very low quality. It’s thin, breathy, and although very familiar, it’s unpleasant to listen to at length. It’s also somewhat monotone in these types of formal, stick-to-the-teleprompter-delivered speeches. A good speaker doesn’t need a voice like James Earl Jones (see Bill Clinton or George W. Bush), but there are ways to strengthen the speaking voice and the POTUS should do so to meet the requirements of his job.
  • He has a habit of biting off choice words, lingering on it, spreading his mouth, jutting out his chin, and baring his teeth, but not in a smile. This seems to happen when he feels he hasn’t received credit for something he thinks he deserves or wants to cast blame. It’s utterly graceless, just plain weird, and out of place in such a decorous setting.
  • The structure of the speech lacked enough rhetorical flourishes. Not that the president would’ve known what do do with them if they were there. There were a couple, but he was unable to land them (see #1) which did not allow this speech to rise to the soaring, uplifting speaking we as a nation crave and deserve.
  • Audible inhales were prevalent. What is with this? It’s an unfortunate and distracting habit he should work on.

As I alluded, the written speech may be much better than his delivery showed. (I still haven’t had a minute to read it all the way through.) Yet, for all the claims from him and the White House that this speech would be unifying and “from the heart,” it seemed clear to me the only unity he was interested in was with his existing fans and as for his heart, I don’t think he actually knows where it is.


The Eloquence of Oprah

I was blown away by Oprah’s Golden Globes speech. Although it clocked in at just under 10 minutes, it was incredibly rich in meaning and beautifully delivered.

So I thought I’d take this opportunity to explain to my subscribers the specific rhetorical devices and tools Oprah included that made it one of the very best, most eloquent speeches I have heard in a long time. By deconstructing and analyzing it for you, my hope is you will see how it’s done as you work on becoming a more polished and confident speaker and presenter.

Watch Oprah’s speech below:


Go to this link to have a transcript of the speech in front of you as you read through my comments.

First Paragraph:

  1. After the opening thank yous, the first line begins a story. “In 1964 I was a little girl…” ALWAYS start your speeches with a story. This one was about Sydney Poitier being the first black person to accept an Oscar. Note how she paints a picture, Ann Bancroft opening the envelope and making the announcement, the color of Poitier’s tie — and the color of his skin.
  2. That line, the white tie juxtaposed against the black skin is a rhetorical device known as opposition.
  3. “As a kid watching from the cheap seats as my mom came through the door bone tired from cleaning other people’s houses…” quickly fills us in on Oprah’s working-class or more likely, lower-class childhood.
  4. She describes how it felt in a way we can also feel and what it meant to her.
  5. She goes on to compare Poitier’s acceptance of the same award she has just received.
  6. She concludes the paragraph with a reference to how other little girls may be feeling watching her accept this award. This ties back to the opening line.
  7. This entire paragraph story is a setup for what comes next.

Second Paragraph:

  1. In the opening sentence, she states it is a privilege to share it with those same little girls, including a group most people would leave out. This shows affection and empathy.
  2. The repetition of the word “who’ve” as she tells us how she came to be on this stage is a device known as anaphora. This is a mesmerizing device and is usually presented in groups of 3, though Oprah’s groups are longer and she uses the device several times.
  3. The list of names of people who’ve helped her is another rhetorical device known as asyndeton, which is also repetitive, but without using the same opening words.
  4. Then, she makes a strong point about the value of the press. The Golden Globes is a press association, so this is not lost on them or anyone else in the room.

Third Paragraph:

  1. The primary point is then made about speaking one’s truth, which she ties to the job of the press and by emphasizing how inspired she has been by women who’ve come forward to report abuse and harassment. Here, too, she expands the group to include the powerless.

Fourth Paragraph:

  1. This first line is extraordinary because she expands the concept of speaking truth by doing just that and lightening the load of women who had “children to feed, bills to pay, and dreams to pursue…” She seems to be saying she does not judge them and they should not feel any guilt for doing what was necessary at the time.
  2. The rest of the paragraph lists a variety of fields and she once again uses anaphora, starting each phrase with the word, they’re.

Fifth Paragraph:

  1. She tells the story of Recy Taylor, a name most haven’t heard, and makes a historical connection to Rosa Parks, a name most of us have heard. She dramatizes Parks’s story by implying the Recy Taylor incident must have played a part in her decision to stay seated on that bus in Montgomery. We don’t know if this is true, but it feels true. This is the overarching story’s culmination.
  2. She fills us in on why she has made the professional choices she has made, all having to do with how we suffer and eventually, overcome. She also once again uses anaphora, this time with the word, how.
  3. “Hope for a brighter morning — even during our darkest nights” is a strong metaphor that also uses opposition, so a combination of rhetorical devices.

Sixth Paragraph:

  1. The climax begins here with an immediate tieback to the little girls of the opening paragraph. This is what we call a bookend, which is a story that ties back to the opening story (or an earlier story).
  2. “New day finally dawns” completes the preceding metaphor.
  3. Oprah concludes with a strong shout-out to the “me too” movement.

This was an overarching narrative about truth, particularly speaking truth to power, beginning in the early days of the civil rights movement, and continuing through the present day. It has an almost poetic level of rhythm. It was a serious speech, delivered with empathy. Note there was nothing funny. It was a classic morality tale, delivered from the heart, intended to take full advantage of the platform.

Of course, Oprah also delivered it beautifully. She made it look easy, but it was so well-rehearsed. She knew where her voice was going to rise and fall, she understood where to pause, where the applause lines might be. Her pacing and timing was perfect. And don’t discount the probability that the adrenaline was flowing, both through her and through her audience.

We must also not forget Oprah is a trained performer, with decades of experience. But make no mistake; this speech took a lot of work.

I must also point out that speaking of this quality is extraordinarily rare. It’s a game-changer. Although Oprah is already quite famous, this performance opens new doors.

And that is how it’s done.

Do I Give Hugs or Handshakes?

Hugs or handshakes? That is the question.

Like most women, I have had to put up with too many men who felt it was ok to invade my personal space and put their hands on me or whisper unwelcome and uninvited sweet nothings in my ear.

So with the seemingly unending revelations about sexual harassers, I thought it would be a good idea to explore what happens when men and women greet each other in a professional setting.

There is a lot to say about this and I won’t get it all into this newsletter or video. I also don’t have much in the way of answers, but the times call for some deep thinking about what happens when men and women greet each other, what gets communicated, and whether that’s what we intended.

For simplicity’s sake — and to keep myself from going off the rails – I’m breaking it down into three distinct situations.

1. Greeting someone new

In this situation, professionals (in the US at least), will generally shake hands. Still, there is a right and wrong way to show professional respect via a handshake. Too often, a man takes a woman’s hand in what I call the “dainty,” which clasps only the fingers. This is instead of the full-fledged handshake men typically give each other. That’s the one where the webs between the thumb and forefinger meet, a level of firmness is exerted and one or two shakes happen as the partners make eye contact and say their pleasantries. This communicates mutual respect and a level of professionalism. By the way, sometimes women give each other the “dainty” and also to men. That communicates weakness that does not bode well for women who wish to be taken seriously. So my advice to men is, shake a woman’s hand the way you shake a man’s and to women, do not act daintily or you will be perceived as such and suffer for it.

2. Greeting someone you have affection for and are reuniting with after some time has passed

Men who feel affection toward other men almost always shake hands when re-uniting. They may do some backslapping and other upper body touching. But, in a similar situation with a woman, they almost always hug and kiss them. And women hug and kiss them back. Quite frequently women initiate it, including me. This, frankly, has always been ok with me, probably because it’s always been this way, but I have come to believe it is risky for women and the perceptions it engenders, even if unintentional or unconscious. This is one of those areas where I don’t have good answers. So, in a professional setting, I’d like to see this change to the way men greet each other. (I’m telling myself this as much as I’m telling you.) Now, if you’ve done something one way for a long time and suddenly change, it can create friction. I feel uncomfortable even thinking of how I’m going to do it going forward, but I’m going to try to keep professional greetings professional and I’ll be interested to know what your experiences are if you decide to make a change or if you never did it to begin with. It’s complicated.

3.  Greeting someone you’ve met a few times and have no real affection (or disaffection) for

This is the most difficult one because it may result in some weirdness that, frankly, no one needs. It’s so much easier to acquiesce to a surprise or unwelcome hug and kiss. But doing so is also the riskiest for women because impressions count. When people greet each other, they’re sizing each other up. If a woman allows herself to be hugged and kissed, even though it’s a cheek kiss, and sometimes even while shaking hands, it sends a signal that perhaps she’s open to more gestures that would be more audacious and more unwelcome. Again, I’m telling myself this as much as opening a discussion with you. So, what to do? In such cases, I’ve found that putting my hand out first and stiffening my arm will often nip it in the bud. Witty conversation and high-quality small talk will mitigate any awkwardness. Sometimes, however, a man will pull that hand he is shaking and force other contact. Here is where I don’t have good answers. Recoiling in the moment may put the woman at further disadvantage professionally and, of course, it depends on who it is doing the pulling – a boss? A client? Two people you most certainly wouldn’t want to offend. So here is where I get stumped. Certain people will respond to a good, private chat, where you explain how this undermines your professional stature (bad for the company and bottom line). Others will be offended and seek to deep-six you. In which case, if you can, you may have to escalate.

Of course, then there is the guy who is a harasser, who gets his jollies by exerting physical power over women. I’m not addressing that here since I wanted to stick with people who are well-intentioned, yet may be clueless or struggling with what to do in this watershed moment, which is a far more common situation and one, that if we figure it out, could have wide-ranging positive consequences for the future workplace

Also, I want to be clear that all of this is based on the US business communication culture. International customs vary so what’s acceptable here is not elsewhere. Also, it could be generational. Generations differ in what they think of as acceptable, a very good thing. I’m a boomer, but I wonder if millennials and Gen Xers handle things the way my generation has.

My only goal is to see women valued for their professional expertise and not have it discounted by traditions meant to preserve the status quo. Hugs hurt women professionally and handshakes help.

I would love to hear your take on this, your experiences. Please add your thoughts to the comments section.