If addressing Congress was an Olympic sport, President Donald Trump might have scored a 9.8.
Last night was Trump’s first address to the nation since his inauguration—and like some athletes with bad boy personas, we wondered which version of Trump was going to show up.
He delivered. If the inaugural address was dark, this was sunny. We tested the speech last night, and across party lines Americans agreed that this was the best speech the president has given. As the Dow breaks 21,000 on Wednesday, the markets seem to agree. As if we were watching the long program in figure skating, we held our breath as we watched him stick the landing, hit all the key technical elements, and stay on program. After a rocky month, it was refreshing to see.
It’s not always easy to deliver a message after a rough time, a controversy, an unpopular announcement, or after our reputations take a hit. While we might disagree on policy and our opinion of the president, we can all agree there are lessons for us as communicators.
The importance of a theme
More than a string of policies, a bunch of stories, or a list of achievements, Trump had a theme: Make America great again. Put America first. Let’s work together. Believe in America and Americans. This is a really important lesson for all of us. It’s not enough to list facts, policies, or statistics if you want to change the hearts and minds of your target audience. You need to tell a story that strikes an emotional chord, one that can be repeated and one that will give you the benefit of the doubt, so those who hear it can tell it for you.
The importance of symbols
Trump gets the power of symbols and optics: don’t just get tough on immigration, build a great, big wall. Last night, he wanted to demonstrate he was reaching across the aisle—and with more than just words—he proudly wore a blue tie, and so did Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Symbols can tell your story for you.
The importance of optimism
Fear doesn’t motivate. Optimism does. The truth is that the brain cannot process either gratitude or optimism at the same time as fear. Last night was filled with optimism. He painted a picture of success. He told us we can come together. He told us it’s not too much to ask to find cures, to lift our citizens from welfare, to be safe from fear, to create jobs, or to prosper and grow. When we are trying to turn a corner after a storm, it is critical we paint a positive picture for our target audiences.
The importance of storytelling
Stories allow us to say things we alone can’t say. Last night, we saw the story of a fallen Navy Seal to show support for the military. He told a story about a woman who achieved greatness to illustrate his commitment to education, and he told a story about a young woman who was treated for a rare disease to underscore the importance of rolling back regulations to unleash more medical discoveries. All of these will be so much more memorable than if he just said we need to support the military, education, and regulatory reform. They give us a face and a reason to support these things.
The importance of the sound bite
Trump knows the art of the sound bite. "Make America Great Again." "America First." "Build a wall." "Buy American and Hire American." Last night, he introduced a few more: "Education is the civil rights issue of our time." "Radical Islamic terrorism." "We want peace, wherever peace can be found." "Common ground." "Believe in yourselves." "Believe in your future." "Believe in America." Sound bites matter. It’s an art, and when you get them right, they will be repeated, over and over and over again.
The president who delivered last night’s speech has the lowest approval ratings for any new president in recent history. He has work to do to earn back trust, but so do many of our clients and companies. We know that trust in institutions is at an all-time low, as well. By guiding them to build a repeatable narrative so those who hear it can and want to tell it for you is a goal we can all achieve.
Lee Carter is partner and president at Maslansky + Partners.