President-elect Donald Trump’s much-anticipated, much-delayed press conference on his private business dealings — and the recent unverified reports about Russia’s alleged blackmail of Trump — reminded the nation of his unique speaking style and how it is received by the press.
Consider the opening lines of his press conference. Despite this being Trump’s first press conference since winning the election, he declared, “It's very familiar territory, news conferences, because we used to give them on an almost daily basis. I think we probably maybe won the nomination because of news conferences.”
Over the next few minutes, Trump jumped from news in the auto industry to bidding procedures in the drug industry, pharma lobbyists, and his involvement with generals and admirals on the F-35 program and “perhaps the F-18” program, declared himself the “greatest jobs producer that God ever created,” and then discussed plans for the inauguration ceremony’s musical performances. Somewhere in there, he also announced his pick for Veterans Affairs secretary.
For those who covered and followed Trump during this campaign, his style has become familiar — and transcribing him off script continues to be a challenge (I can attest to this). He often jumps to an entirely new thought before finishing his previous one.
Recall Trump’s comment on the Iran nuclear deal during a campaign rally in South Carolina on July 21, 2015:
Look, having nuclear — my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, okay, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart — you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, okay, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I'm one of the smartest people anywhere in the world — it’s true! — but when you're a conservative Republican they try — oh, do they do a number — that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune — you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged — but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me — it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are (nuclear is powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was 35 years ago; he would explain the power of what's going to happen and he was right — who would have thought?), but when you look at what's going on with the four prisoners — now it used to be three, now it’s four — but when it was three and even now, I would have said it's all in the messenger; fellas, and it is fellas because, you know, they don't, they haven’t figured that the women are smarter right now than the men, so, you know, it’s gonna take them about another 150 years — but the Persians are great negotiators, the Iranians are great negotiators, so, and they, they just killed, they just killed us.
His simple message — "the Iran deal is bad for the United States" — was interrupted by musings on his uncle’s education, his own education, the power of nuclear energy, prisoners, the intelligence of women, and the negotiating prowess of Iranians. Slate even called on the public to help diagram it.
Trump is aware of his unique style; he explained it to a crowd in West Allis, Wisconsin, at one of his victory tour rallies in December:
For the last month I decided not to do interviews, because they give interviews and they chop up your sentences and cut them short. You will have this beautiful flowing sentence where the back of the sentence reverts to the front and they cut the back of the sentence off, and I say I never said that. So, I said, you know what, I am not going to deal with them. They are very dishonest people, I said.
During the campaign, I was curious if professional linguists and historians could help us figure out what makes Trump’s speaking style unique. There were lots of disagreements on this front, but one thing stood out: Trump’s speeches aren’t meant to be read or used for sound bites, which is probably why Trump is so frustrated with how he comes off in the media.
Rather, his seeming incoherence stems from the big difference between written and spoken language. Trump’s style of speaking has its roots in oral culture. He rallies people through impassioned, targeted conversation — even if it doesn’t always follow a clear arc.
Why Trump’s speeches are incomprehensible to some — and make perfect sense to others
Only a few of Trump’s big speeches have been scripted. At many of his rallies, he speaks off the cuff. We get a lot of fractured, unfinished sentences, moving quickly from thought to thought — what Trump calls a “beautiful flowing sentence.”
"His speeches are full of non sequiturs," says Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a Calvin College historian who did a comparative study of Trump and Clinton’s speaking styles. It’s a completely different style from nearly any other politician you normally hear.
To some, this style is completely incoherent. But clearly not everyone feels this way. Many others have walked away from Trump’s rallies having understood — and believed — what he said.
The difference can be observed in reading Trump’s remarks versus listening to them in real time, University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman explained:
This apparent incoherence has two main causes: false starts and parentheticals. Both are effectively signaled in speaking — by prosody along with gesture, posture, and gaze — and therefore largely factored out by listeners. But in textual form the cues are gone, and we lose the thread.
In other words, Trump’s digressions and rambles — or, as he says, when “the back of the sentence reverts to the front” — are much easier to follow in person thanks to subtle cues.
His style of speaking is conversational, and may even stem from his New York City upbringing. As George Lakoff, a linguist at UC Berkeley, told me, "[The] thing about being a New Yorker is it is polite if you finish their sentences for them. It’s a natural part of conversation."
This may be why Trump’s sentences often seem, in transcript form, to trail off with no ending. "He knows his audience can finish his sentences for him," Lakoff says.
Watching Trump, it’s easy to see how this plays out. He makes vague implications with a raised eyebrow or a shrug, allowing his audience to reach their own conclusions. And that conversational style can be effective. It’s more intimate than a scripted speech. People walk away from Trump feeling as though he were casually talking to them, allowing them to finish his thoughts.
Yet to many linguists, Trump stands out for how often he deploys these conversational tics. "Trump's frequency of divergence is unusual," Liberman says. In other words, he goes off topic way more often than the average person in conversation.
Geoffrey Pullum, a linguist at the University of Edinburgh, argues that there’s more going on than just a conversational, I’ll-let-you-fill-in-the-gaps style. Trump’s unorganized sentences and short snippets might suggest something about how his mind works. "His speech suggests a man with scattered thoughts, a short span of attention, and a lack of intellectual discipline and analytical skills," Pullum says.
More sophisticated thinkers and speakers (including many past presidents), Pullum argues, are able to use "hypotaxis — that is, embedding of clauses within clauses." Trump can’t seem to do that.
Pullum explains further: "When you say something like, 'While Congress shows no interest in doing X, I feel that the American people believe it is essential,' the clause ‘it is essential’ is inside the clause ‘the American people believe it is essential’ which is inside the clause ‘I feel that the American people believe it is essential,’ and so on. You get no such organized thoughts from Trump. It's bursts of noun phrases, self-interruptions, sudden departures from the theme, flashes of memory, odd side remarks. … It's the disordered language of a person with a concentration problem."
Trump’s speeches can be appealing because he uses a lot of salesmen’s tricks
Lakoff has an explanation for why Trump’s style of speaking is so appealing to many. Many of Trump’s most famous catchphrases are actually versions of time-tested speech mechanisms that salespeople use. They’re powerful because they help shape our unconscious.
Take, for example, Trump’s frequent use of "Many people are saying…" or "Believe me" — often right after saying something that is baseless or untrue. This tends to sound more trustworthy to listeners than just outright stating the baseless claim, since Trump implies that he has direct experience with what he’s talking about. At a base level, Lakoff argues, people are more inclined to believe something that seems to have been shared.
And when Trump kept calling Clinton "crooked," or referring to terrorists as "radical Muslims," he strengthened the association through repetition. He also calls his supporters "folks," to show he is one of them (though many politicians employ this trick). Trump doesn’t repeat phrases and adjectives because he is stalling for time, Liberman says; for the most part, he’s providing emphasis and strengthening the association.
These are normal techniques, particularly in conversational speech. "Is he reading cognitive science? No. He has 50 years of experience as a salesman who doesn’t care who he is selling to," Lakoff says. On this account, Trump used similar methods in his QVC-style pitch of steaks and vodka as he does when he talks about his plan to stop ISIS.
"He has been doing this for a very long time as a salesman — that’s what he is best at," Lakoff says.
People understand Trump on an emotional level
Trump’s style proved to be successful — he beat out a highly competitive field of lifelong Republicans and a seasoned politician in Hillary Clinton. He's confident enough to address large crowds conversationally and ad-lib on stage.
That said, his rise can’t be attributed purely to his speaking style. It certainly has a lot to do with what he is actually saying. "If the content were different, I think it would come across as rambling and flabby and ineffective," Liberman says.
In other words, when Trump’s audience finishes his sentences for him, the blanks are filled with sentiments that resonate: fears of joblessness, worries about the United States losing its status as a major world power, concerns about foreign terrorist organizations. Trump validates their insecurities and justifies their anger. He connects on an emotional level, Du Mez says.
"For listeners who identify with Trump, there is little they need to do but claim what they’re entitled to," she says. "No need for sacrifice, for compromise, for complexity. He taps into fear and insecurity, but then enables his audience to express that fear through anger. And anger gives the illusion of empowerment."
That doesn’t mean it will translate to effective leadership, however. As much as the American people look for authenticity and spontaneity in a president, which Trump seems to have mastered, they are also known to value discipline.
"Leadership is hard; it needs discipline, concentration, and an ability to ignore what's irrelevant or needless or personal or silly," Pullum says. "There is no sign of it from Trump. This man talks honestly enough that you can see what he's like: He's an undisciplined narcissist who craves power but doesn't have the intellectual capacity to exercise it wisely."