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Trump: Unscripted vs. scripted

President Donald Trump has long been faulted for his use of English, with the Flesch-Kincaid readability test once scoring the president at a fourth-grade level. Despite all the criticism, however, it’s hard to deny his success in communicating to a strong base of supporters, who seem to stick with him no matter what.

On Tuesday, the president will give his second State of the Union address. He’ll command the attention of both Congress and a television audience of millions, even though delivering scripted speeches has often proved to be his least effective way of communicating. And while all presidents have varied success with scripted and unscripted remarks, Trump has found a third, more consistently reliable means: Twitter. We talked to two language experts to find out the strategy behind these different forms of communication and how they can affect those listening.

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“The Twitter president is the most authentic and uncensored view of the president that we actually get,” said Brian Ott, a professor of media and communications at Texas Tech University. He has studied the intersection of rhetoric and media for more than 20 years, and is co-author of the book “The Twitter Presidency.” “He speaks in very simple ways. This is why he’s so effective on Twitter, because with its 280-character cap it’s impossible to say anything complex.”

Additionally, campaign rallies, candid responses to reporters and moments in which he goes off the teleprompter are instances when the president is able to speak more naturally. Although his delivery seems all over the place, there could be some strategy behind it.

“What the president is very good at is, he knows the intention for why he wants to talk,” said Joel Gómez, president and CEO for the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington. “He knows his audience and he has the ability to use the right tools in order to communicate his ideas.”

According to Ott’s analysis, when Trump is speaking for himself, he targets 38-48 percent of the American people, his core supporters. That might suffice for a president with a persistently low approval rating: Gallup released its January 2019 poll amid the longest government shutdown in history, and Trump’s approval rating was 37 percent — his lowest was 35 percent in December 2017. With the State of the Union and other scripted addresses, however, his challenge is to moderate his speech and go after a wider audience.

“He’s not a skilled public speaker,” Ott said. “Which isn’t to say he’s not an effective communicator. Those are different things.”

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