Vail Daily column: A winning way for what you say
“We teach seminarians to weigh words and analyze thoughts,” said my Princeton communications professor, Virginia Damon. She emphasized that connecting with people depends on how what’s said is packaged.
Taking the stage name Ginger Jones, Damon was the second actress to play Alice Kramden, opposite Jackie Gleason who starred as her husband, Ralph. He was a down-on-his luck bus driver who worked for fictional Gotham Bus Company in Brooklyn. Ralph blew his top when Alice chastised and corrected him.
In these 1950s “The Honeymooners” skits, working-guy Kramden yelled empty threats at his wife, “One of these days…Alice!” “POW!!! Right in the kisser!” or “BANG! ZOOM! Straight to the moon!” Damon was abruptly fired from this role when Senator Joseph McCarthy unleashed the Red Scare across America. She was accused of harboring communist sympathies. After Audrey Meadows took the role, she made Alice iconic in early television, later inspiring Wilma Flintstone’s character.
Professor Damon’s counsel to note how words are packaged rather than judging their content helps unpack Donald Trump’s winning edge in speeches untethered to a TelePrompTer. Like Ralph Kramden, Trump resonates with blue-collar audiences. These voters are outraged because Washington elites haven’t delivered on jobs for coal miners and steel workers.
President Trump sells stuff in the same way another 19th century New Yorker, Phineas Taylor Barnum, sold hokum. He welcomed controversy because it sold. The more outlandish, the better, believed Barnum.
Barnum made money on how he packaged a former slave, Joice Heth. Pocketing $1,500 a week in 1835, he adored his moniker, “The Prince of Humbug.” Barnum flimflammed gullible audiences that Heth was a 161-year-old slave who had served as George Washington’s wet nurse. At her death, Barnum made quick bucks, charging a voyeur a half buck to view her autopsy. Audiences gave a pass to the truth of Barnum’s advertising because they loved his show. Trump puts on a great show, too.
During my doctoral studies in communications, I delved into why a speaker connects with an audience, even when what’s said is humbug. President Trump gets high marks for verbal packaging that sells. He speaks casually. He uses strong verbs and short retorts. And his asides, such as “SAD,” are soaked in sarcasm and curl into the hearts of hearers. Reality TV superbly prepared Trump to speak on an emotive level that stirs passion rather than insight. He gets quick response from the Ralph Kramdens who feel mentally trapped in a dingy Brooklyn apartment with wife Alice — the New York elites — mocking them.
Trump excels in three areas that Aristotle taught were vital to riveting communication. Speakers who connect are good at informing, delighting and inspiring hearers, declared Aristotle. Trump offers inaccurate “facts” that sound terrific. A natural at selling, he initially bluffs in an opening gambit that’s rarely his final position.
In his book “The Art of the Deal,” Trump is up front about not caring about facts. He describes what he’s up to: “I play with people’s fantasies.” That’s how Ralph Kramden operated, conjuring get-rich-quick schemes that didn’t have a chance of succeeding but sounded good. Trump sells fantasies to people down on their luck. He is very, very good at peddling imaginary stuff.
President Trump blows by facts like dust kicked up in a pounding wind. The Wall Street Journal cheerleader Daniel Henninger nails what Trump successfully does in speaking. “Donald Trump treats the truth as only one of several props he’s willing to use to achieve an affect. Truth sits on his workbench alongside hyperbole, sentimentality, bluster and just kidding. Use as needed” (“Trump as Lady Gaga,” Dec. 8, 2016, p. A-15).
Next, Trump excels at delighting crowds. He makes listening fun. He goes on riffs about fake news and raises laughs by mocking opponents. It’s an act he perfected on “The Apprentice.” His listeners adore an extrovert who exaggerates, simplifies and gushes with superlatives. They accept it as part of the act, sheer humbug.
Furthermore, Trump inspires listeners. He’s perfected a rambling style of speaking, off-the-cuff, with choppy, non-linear thoughts. This style perks interest because you never know what he’s going to say next. His blue-color lingo makes Trump sound like construction workers gabbing at a bar after work. The president plays the part of a hardhat billionaire.
Here’s pure Trumpian chatter from a 2015 South Carolina rally. “Look, having nuclear — my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at M.I.T.; good genes, very good genes, OK, 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, OK …”
Such riffs jack listeners’ juices. Trump sounds as if it’s a sealed deal that something, sometime, somewhere is going to be better than the grubby existence today’s Ralph Kramdens endure.
Give Trump an A+ for informing on his terms, delighting in his way and inspiring like P.T. Barnum.
Then I replace this dunce cap evaluation with a hat atop a discerning mind. Where is honesty in this bluster, intelligence in this banter, and mercy in a materialistic streak that doesn’t play fair? Trump aces sales in humbug but flunks because his content is phony and hollow.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.
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