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23 Jan 2017

Why President Trump’s inauguration address was classic speechwriting

Posted on January 23, 2017 by

Donald Trump inauguration Capitol Building

Donald J Trump, the 45th President of the United States of America, understands the power of three

At just 16 minutes it was shorter than most US presidential inauguration speeches of the past, and it was certainly less poetic than most in its use of language. But Donald Trump’s inaugural address did demonstrate classic speechwriting techniques.

It appears the words were written by two senior Trump advisers, Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, but whoever put pen to paper (metaphorically speaking) clearly knows all about the “rule of three” – and used it to maximum effect in last Friday’s address.

As PR and communications professionals it’s our job to craft messages that will resonate with – and influence – our target audience. We use the rule of three in the press releases we write, the interview preparation we give our clients, and the speeches and presentations we prepare for them.

The rule is based on a very simple notion: that our brains work best when we’re asked to retain no more than three pieces of information. It’s the principle that things in threes are more memorable.

It’s why so many pop songs follow the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-verse-chorus template. It’s why there were three blind mice and three little pigs, and why trilogies are much more prevalent than tetralogies.

Throughout history, the rule of three has been used in public speaking, from Julius Caesar (“Veni. Vidi. Vici.”) to Winston Churchill (“so much owed, by so many, to so few”). But there can’t be many who have used it with such enthusiasm as the 45th President of the United States.

By my reckoning, those 16 minutes outside the Capitol Building in Washington DC included at least 20 instances where the rule of three was used. The first was after just 45 seconds:  “We will face challenges. We will confront hardships. But we will get the job done.”

Compare that with the election campaign, when Trump tended to ramble and frequently demonstrated his verbal tic of repeating himself.  More a habit than any desire to hammer home the message.

“I want security for this country. I want security” and “We will have great relationships. We expect to have great, great relationships” (from his acceptance speech in November) are just two examples.

But with many of those speeches, it seems that either he was speaking off the cuff (unlikely) or he was going slightly off the script that had been prepared for him. But that verbal repetition is something he was known for during his 14 seasons on ‘The Apprentice’ in the US, so you could argue that he was merely Donald-ising those speeches.

A presidential inauguration is something slightly different, however. It’s watched by hundreds of millions of people across the globe, and it’s pored over by historians for generations. It’s not the time to go freestyle.

But the knack of any good speechwriter is to make the words blend seamlessly with the personality and delivery style of the speaker.

If President Trump had used the occasion to quote Shakespeare, Lincoln or Churchill it wouldn’t have sounded credible. It wouldn’t have sounded honest. It wouldn’t have sounded like Donald Trump.

Instead, Miller/Bannon went for short sentences, using nationalistic language that appealed directly to the voters who put him in office.  It was the typical fist-pumping style to which we’ve become accustomed with Donald Trump speeches – albeit a little less abrasive than usual. And instead of the constant repetition, we got the constant reiteration of the rule of three.

“Your voice, your hopes and your dreams will define our American destiny.”

“We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth.”

It wasn’t a classic presidential speech. Nor was it very classy. But in communications terms it did remind us of one thing: three is the perfect number.

Now all you need to do is work out how many times I used that rule in this post!


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4:10 PM — 22 Mar 17

So true @Gillmo the brain of 2017 just has to hold more and multi-task harder! @therealprmoment

2:46 PM — 22 Mar 17

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