Monday, August 29, 2016

Being politically "authentic"

Enough with Donald Trump's "authenticity," already! What does that even mean? He doesn't use a telepromter! He is so unscripted! Refreshing! So authentic! Puh-leeze. . .

If you've read my blog before you may remember this entry or this one where I share my thoughts on using "authenticity" as an excuse for sloppiness, laziness, or pretense. So I was happy to read Mark Thompson's op-ed in yesterday' s New York Times, Trump and the Dark History of Straight Talk. He says Trump is actually one in a long line of political types who use anti-rhetoric (his "telling it like it is" strategy) as a way to prove he is the anti-establishment candidate. But Thompson points out that Trump's "authenticity" is not so very authentic after all: "The quality to which every anti-rhetorician aspires is authenticity. But there is a big difference between proclaiming your authenticity and actually being true to yourself and the facts. So let me use a different term: authenticism, for the philosophical and rhetorical strategy of emphasizing the “authentic” above all."

Donald Trump is playing at being "authentic," but it is a false authenticity. He is quite the showman, however, and his show is playing well with the thousands of voters who flock to his extravaganzas -- I mean, his rallies. But scratch the surface, and his authenticity falls away. We see this in his recent imitation of a weathervane when it comes to immigration. His earlier tough talk was just a ploy to knock off primary rivals.

Thompson says Hillary Clinton is the complete opposite of Trump, rhetorically. He calls her the "technocrat's technocrat." I take this to mean she is too "in the weeds" in her speeches. She gives too much detail, is too strategic, too cerebral. She appeals to voter's heads but not their hearts. I am not sure this is true of all her speeches, and certainly the content of many of her speeches doesn't support this assertion (the Reno speech was full of feeling). But her delivery does get in the way of making a connection with her listeners. Which frustrates me no end.

Like most of America, I have been a Hillary-watcher for years. I definitely think I could offer her some help. The secret to connecting with listeners is exactly what I teach: how to communicate your authentic presence; how to speak in your own voice. Even if you are an introvert I can give you strategies for standing up in front of rooms of 25 or 2500 to confidently share your message. The key is using your inner strength to draw your audience toward you, rather than pushing your message at them (which is a hallmark of Trumpian "authenticism").

But discovering how to communicate with such authenticity takes time and self-study. And political campaigns are reluctant to have candidates give me either. When I have had success, it is because candidates have been acutely aware of their need to connect more fully with voters and have sought me out. They have made the time, in spite of grumbling from staffers that they didn't need this training, not really, because they were "fine" on the stump. Working with me (or any speaking coach, for that matter) does not guarantee victory. No single element in a campaign does. But even when my clients lost, they won more votes than they expected.

Until campaigns realize that helping a candidate communicate with true authenticity is an important skill to develop, we may be stuck with campaign as entertainment vs. campaign as lecture. Let's hope the party powers-that-be have this realization soon, or we could all come to dread this peculiarly American quadrennial ritual.

photo inspired by Emily Dickinsons poem "I'm Nobody"