It’s hard for me to write about public speaking in the age of Donald Trump, as if speeches matter.
I believe that the two most important elements of a speech are 1) the speaker’s goodwill and integrity, and 2) a message that is supported by evidence and reasoning, that is wise and beneficial to the audience.
And yet Trump’s rhetoric—lacking in both of these elements—has proven successful.
It seems revolutionary these days to suggest that leaders, in preparing and delivering a speech, should be concerned about—passionately committed to—speaking the truth.
Because the truth is rarely plain and never simple, speaking the truth requires thoughtfulness and discrimination.
Speaking the Truth in a Speech
First, examine the evidence.
Evidence doesn’t speak for itself. The “facts” aren’t, in and by themselves, the truth. But they are the building blocks with which you begin discerning the truth.
So facts are important.
Get them right. Gather as many as you can, from as many different perspectives as possible. Check your sources. Be critical.
Realize that your biases—everyone has them—influence how you judge the accuracy of the evidence you examine. Which isn’t a reason to discount the importance of evidence. Don’t buy into the cynical argument that people’s biases invalidate any and all evidence.
Second, determine what the evidence means.
Again, facts don’t speak for themselves. They don’t say anything at all. We speak about them and for or against them.
We look at the facts we’ve gathered, discounting some, giving credence to others, and we look for connections that explain what we see. How are the facts related? And what does that relationship tell us?
Drawing meaning from the facts takes effort, intellectual honesty, and humility (a word that is in disrepute these days).
By the end of this process, we should be able to say, “This is what I believe to be true and meaningful, and here’s why.”
Third, decide what action the truth calls for.
Don’t simply speak the truth and assume that your audience will know what to do with or about it. That’s why every good speech has a call to action.
In this circumstance, here and now, what should this audience—this collection of individuals—do as a result of hearing the truth you set before them? Why would they want to act? How will doing so benefit them or the people and causes they believe in?
Audiences have grown cynical about what they hear, especially from leaders today. So leaders have to be even more diligent about being accurate and truthful about what they say in a speech. And that’s a good thing.
My guess is that over the next year as he steps into power, very few people will believe Trump’s word, or trust him.
I think we are seeing the nadir of civic discourse with the rise of Trump. I think the shock of how he speaks and behaves will help truth, authenticity, integrity, honesty and trust to re-emerge as the fundamental currency of communication.