Friday, July 22, 2016

Famous Speech Friday: Melania Trump's speech at the Republican convention

(Editor's note: This is a longer than usual post, but then again, it's been a longer than usual week for women and public speaking. I'm grateful I don't write this post for any earlier in the week, given how this story unfolded. TGIF.)

The most famous speech of many given in this week of the U.S. Republican National Convention was a woman's speech. At the beginning of the week, that was because it was only the second speech given in the presidential campaign by Melania Trump, wife of candidate Donald Trump. Speculation was natural. By the end of the week, a woman speaker and a woman speechwriter both had been prominently discredited, and the message of the speech completely lost in a plagiarism furor.

I choose speeches for this series by all kinds of women, but require that the speech itself be famous. This speech would qualify for Notorious Speech Friday, let alone Famous Speech Friday. It was slammed on Twitter thousands of times with the hashtag #FamousMelaniaTrumpQuotes giving her credit for all sorts of famous speech lines; parodied by comedians; investigated by reporters; and most of all, kept in play by continued and conflicting denials from the campaign--so much so, some observers suggested it was a publicity ploy from start to finish, although that seems unlikely. More likely: No one was paying much attention to the candidate's wife's talk. Big mistake. Briefly, here's what happened:

The speech was notable for the absence of what we've come to expect from the so-called wifely tribute at a convention. This one was almost entirely devoid of personal details that would help listeners connect with the candidate. Personal details, particularly in a speech like this, do what hours of ads can't do. But Melania Trump did speak a little about her own immigrant experience, noting:
From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise; that you treat people with respect.
All appropriate thoughts for someone looking to be the next First Lady of the United States. So appropriate, in fact, that we'd heard them before, in Michelle Obama's 2008 convention speech:
You work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say you’re going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don’t know them, and even if you don’t agree with them.
Similarities can be found with other passages as well. If anyone at the Trump campaign had thought to themselves, "Oh, no one will notice," they were quickly proved wrong. A Twitter user and former television journalist tweeted about the similarities. Huffington Post was among the first to report on the possibility of plagiarismMainstream media pundits called it a "catastrophic" occurrence, and at least one suggested it was sabotage from within the campaign. Others said it just showed the amateurish nature of the campaign. Twitter exploded.

The campaign itself poured fuel on the fire with conflicting statements. Before the convention, Melania Trump had told at least one media outlet that she had written the speech herself "with as little help as possible." After it was brought to light, the campaign issued a statement about the speech that did not address the plagiarism, but talked about her "team of writers" using her own thoughts among other sources. But the next day, Paul Manafort, the campaign's chairman, denied the accusations, saying, “There’s no cribbing of Michelle Obama’s speech. These were common words and values that she cares about — her family, things like that. I mean, she was speaking in front of 35 million people last night. She knew that. To think that she would be cribbing Michelle Obama’s words is crazy.” Others in the party had a variety of reactions: fire the speechwriter, the plagiarism wasn't a big deal, and, bizarrely, that the backlash was Hillary Clinton's way of blaming a woman who attacked her.

That mix of responses led to more investigation by reporters. They put the speech through a plagiarism checker (pro tip: there are many freely available online) and found nearly 50 percent of it qualified as "non-unique," despite New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's assertion that "93 percent" was original. With the longest matching phrase at 23 words, the report noted that the likelihood it was a coincidence was less than one in 1 trillion. Side-by-side video comparisons of the two speeches, and videos that overlaid the two speeches, were rushed online. Every speechwriter dreams of a speech being pored over in detail, each word considered...but not this way.

The reality was closer to Trump's original statement. A speech had been commissioned from two top Republican speechwriters, who were quick to share their draft and note how little it had in common with the eventual speech. It emerged that Trump had worked with a trusted ghostwriter to edit the original draft, and finally, that ghostwriter, Meredith McIver, admitted responsibility for incorporating Michelle Obama's words and failing to remove them from the draft. As MSNBC pointed out, every Republican who had fallen in line with the campaign's denial was suddenly left looking stupid, or out of the loop. And, credibility being in short supply, observers noted that McIver's social profiles had all been created fewer than 24 hours before the disclosure, prompting speculation that the speechwriter is not real. But in fact, she does exist, and in the past, had another episode in which she entered errors into a book manuscript for Donald Trump. Because she is not registered as working for the campaign, her involvement may be an illegal in-kind contribution to the campaign. All that for using a writer with whom (I'm guessing) the candidate and his wife feel comfortable.

Let's get to the lessons, shall we? I like to share good examples you can use in your own public speaking, and this speech is a good example of what not to do when you have a high-stakes speaking engagement. Here's what you can learn from this famous speech:
  • Authenticity goes beyond facts: When I watched the speech delivered live, the "your word is your bond" speech struck me as inauthentic to Trump. To my ear, the phrasing didn't seem like something she would say herself. Copying, rather than just consulting, previous speeches is a mistake just waiting to be discovered. More important, a speech needs to fit you like a glove, not be a speech that someone else could deliver. The copied version could only be, at best, an ill-fitting glove for Trump. Sarah Palin faced a similar situation, with a convention speech pre-written long before anyone had selected her. But it was customized with stories from her personal life that fit the themes, a much better way to make it her own.
  • Don't miss your big opportunity: Controversy aside, this speech missed the mark by a mile. The speaker didn't practice, saying she only read the draft once over before delivering it. That meant she was reduced to reading the teleprompter instead of reaching the audience. Some observers excused the flat delivery by saying English is not Trump's first language, but she speaks five languages. That wasn't the problem. The content did nothing to help us know and understand her husband in ways only she could share, which is the entire point of having a candidate's spouse speak. Pundits were reduced to commenting on her appearance and that her delivery was serviceable, because the content and genuine connection were so lacking.
  • Use the Russert test: The late journalist Tim Russert had a great test for inauthentic-sounding statements: Take your talking points and turn them into pointed questions that your worst enemy would ask, to see if they stand up. Hard, skeptical questioning might have uncovered such problems as using the lines of the opposing party's First Lady, praising your husband's loyalty when you're his third wife, and challenging the opponent's authenticity with a speech that is plagiarized. The Russert test helps you attend to the details on which your credibility is resting. After all, it's not how you see the speech that counts. It's how we see it.
  • Details matter: Details matter in high-profile talks like this one. The controversy meant that Melania Trump's words really didn't get heard, drowning out her message more effectively than any mute button. Once the error was confessed, her husband's campaign shared its plans to scrub his speech for the same kinds of errors and copies that no one bothered to look for in his wife's speech. Apparently, they know how to do this. They just didn't do it at any point in the prep for Mrs. Trump's speech.
As reporter John Dickerson pointed out in his podcast, this speech matters a great deal to the campaign. He described a series of missteps by the campaign that preceded the speech, as well as the speech snafus, then said:
These are maybe all small things and they're not going to bother the rank and file Trump voters. Good gracious, the opposite is true. They'll think this is the petty baloney stuff that only political insiders care about. But this week is about political insiders, that's what it's about: uniting the party, settling the nerves of the people who give the money and come to the conventions, the rank and file who make a party go...some of them check writers who are worried that Donald Trump is so unpredictable that it's not going to be worth writing money to the party or to his campaign or the campaigns of other Republicans if Donald Trump is going to torpedo the cause. These people...who were trying to be brought into the Donald Trump tent are the ones who pay attention to those little things...
There's no better indicator of the negative impact of this speech than this: Over the four days of the convention, this plagiarism scandal overwhelmingly dominated the media coverage, even prompting reporters to examine how the candidate's speech was being fact-checked in advance.

No matter how you vote, I think it's a shame that this happened to a woman speaker on only her second speech of the campaign. The Republican National Convention had just 34% female speakers on the stage, with this speech the most prominent by a woman. I'm ending the week feeling as if Melania Trump was not, at a minimum, well supported for this now-famous speech, in both the speech preparation and the spokesmanship about the controversy. In the end, this major stumble at what might have been the start of a high-profile speaking career is going to dog her steps going forward. Should she become First Lady, she might well want to avoid speaking publicly, which would be a big step backward for that role. This will frame her media coverage and her credibility. Her unfavorable rating was high going into the convention, and it will only increase now. And it should. In the end, the responsibility for a speech begins and ends with the speaker, no matter how many speechwriters you throw under the bus.

Here's a side-by-side comparison of the plagiarized sections of the speech:

Melania Trump Plagiarized Michelle Obama's Convention Speech - COMPARISON
And here's the speech in full:

Melania Trump Delivers Remarks at Republican National Convention

Join me in Edinburgh, Scotland, on October 20 for a new workshop, Add Meaning with Metaphor: Improve your Speeches with the Most Powerful Figure of Speech. It's a pre-conference workshop at the Edinburgh Speechwriters and Business Communicators Conference, designed to help both speakers and speechwriters use this powerful tool. You can register here for just the workshop, the conference, or both, and you'll get the best discount if you sign up by August 1.