IU debate coach critiques Trump, Clinton speeches

  • Aug. 1, 2016

Editor's note: This story from The Bloomington Herald-Times is being published here as a courtesy for readers of IU in the News.

By Kurt Christian

To delve deeper than evaluations of one candidate’s coiffed hair versus another’s pantsuit, Indiana University senior lecturer and debate coach Brian DeLong analyzes each party’s speeches using the acronym MAIDS.

Composed of the canons of rhetoric, the acronym stands for memory, arrangement, invention, delivery and speech, DeLong said. Memory has fallen by the wayside with the invention of teleprompters, but the order in which a speech is given, the decisions made regarding its content, how that speech is communicated and the message itself are all criteria DeLong considered as he listened to the speeches of Republican Party presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton this month.

“In the vast majority of classes, the subject matter I’m teaching is communication and how best to deliver, interpret and analyze messaging. Basic communications courses that come out of the humanities will focus on how to develop each of those components,” DeLong said. “We, as speechwriters or rhetoricians, can only guess an audience’s interpretation. The speech itself is not typically the way American audiences will understand the speech.”

DeLong has used his oratory experience in teaching public speaking classes since he was in graduate school, and for the past six years, he’s taught multiple public policy and debate classes through IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs while coaching the university’s debate team. Although he identifies as a Democrat, DeLong has followed both candidates as they’ve each chosen their own styles.

“For both Clinton and Trump, it is quite clear they are confident and comfortable in their own skin in a situation which the vast majority of the population would consider an awkward situation,” DeLong said. “If you plop an individual behind that podium, you’ll notice a lot of mannerisms that would look awkward ... and that’s not something you see with Clinton or Trump. They’re polished.”

And in polishing each of their speeches, both candidates opened their thought processes up to dissection. DeLong laid out the typical framework of a candidate’s nomination acceptance speech, in which the rhetoric usually focuses on defining one candidate while contrasting them with the other. Largely ceremonial in mending interparty divisions created during the campaigning process, these speeches give nominees the chance to espouse a presidential ethos, smooth over unclear policy details with thematic values and top it all off by hugging their families on stage.

DeLong said both candidates took risks in their acceptance speeches. Trump’s darker reflections and portrayal of external threats from “others” set up a void to be filled by a “law and order” candidate. In DeLong’s interpretation of Trump’s self-depiction, “law” directly refers to Clinton’s legal issues, while the “order “ half of the label serves to promote stability in the wake of democratic institutional failings.

DeLong explained Trump took a risk in painting an unpalatable vision of the world in his speeches, and by doubling down on the Republican Party’s white- and blue-collar demographics in the swing and Rust Belt states.

“I think a lot of people were very surprised at the depiction of America that was contained in (Trump’s) speech,” said DeLong. “It did not follow a similar path with other candidates, as you look back. As an academic interested in how well this works ... we don’t know. He’s breaking rules in the way he’s speaking to the American public, and I think a lot of people have had to eat their hats who didn’t think Trump would make it this far.”

Whereas Trump hammered home the notion of his presidency as a solution by saying “I am your voice,” Clinton’s speech focused more on unity while using the word “together” 15 times and the word “we” more than 100 times. That same inclusionary tone may have been Clinton’s riskiest move, according to DeLong. He thinks supporters of Bernie Sanders will be wary of the olive branch Clinton extended to the Republican Party.

Risk aside, DeLong felt Clinton benefited from speaking last. According to DeLong, Clinton challenged the double standards scholars believe women face in public speaking and used the tradition and history of the Democratic National Convention’s location in Philadelphia as a glue to bind revolutionary ideas to the polity’s present division.

“While Hillary is shattering boundaries in terms of gender and expectations, she follows a very predictable form of speech,” said DeLong.

On top of a complex audience, a speech’s meaning will be filtered numerous times by the media, political panels or even an audience member’s Facebook feed. With an intent to bring undecided voters to a particular candidate’s side, speeches must take into account a host of factors, the least of which is precedence.

“In terms of convention speeches and the effort that goes into them, the campaign should vet every sentence in how it might be interpreted. Every line has meaning and those lines have some sort of impact, but it’s very hard to have a single, unilateral interpretation of what was said,” DeLong said. “When someone walks into that ballot box and doesn’t feel anything or identify with Hillary, or they don’t identify or they feel alienated by Trump, they may not walk in at all.”