Across the world today, only 26 modern monarchs still reign. Out of 192 countries, 123 are considered to be democracies, ruled by elected leaders who, theoretically, could have any social background; indeed, part of the American Dream is to rise from humble beginnings to the highest national office.
So if a leader can come from any background, why do we expect them to all speak the same way?
When it comes to official business (and there is no business more official than running a country), a certain formal style of speech is used. We call the varied formality and word choices a register – a linguistic term that refers to the way we choose to talk or write, dependent on the audience.
An easy way to think about it is the difference between talking to a group of friends, or talking to your boss. Your tone, subject range, and approach may change drastically between the two; discussing your love life might be par for the course over beers with your buddies, but embarrassing to bring up during the morning meeting. The collection of speech choices you make for each group is called a “register” – for example, you could have a “work register” in the office.
World leaders and presidents have to talk to a wide variety of listeners, each of whom may interpret their words very differently. What they say can change the course of diplomacy, or even start a war, so each word has to be selected carefully. When you’re thinking about talking to a large, unknown audience, there’s a lot to learn from how presidents speak, and how audiences listen.
Use a formal tone
When it comes to world leaders, a particular formal register is expected. As Dr Eaton explains on her blog,
This style is impersonal and often follows a prescriptive format. The speaker uses complete sentences, avoids slang and may use technical or academic vocabulary.”
Sarah Elaine Eaton, University of Calgary
A formal register is great for official communications, as it respects that the speaker and their audience do not have a personal or intimate relationship. It also establishes that the speaker shoulder be respected, especially for their particular expertise.
For the most formal communications, avoid contractions (can’t, won’t) and abbreviations (asap). Full sentences with correct grammar and spelling are essential, and not only lend formality, but also improve the chance your audience will understand the message.
Create mutual understanding
Although “technical or academic vocabulary” is a common part of the formal register, context is key. If your audience doesn’t understand your field on an expert level, it is best to use generic, widely-understood terms. Doctors and scientists sometimes make the mistake of relying on technical language as a display of their expertise, but to a clueless audience, it all just sounds meaningless – and without meaning, they are likely to tune out.
The best political speeches rely on common understanding between the expert speaker and the uninformed audience. Martin Luther King’s famous I Have a Dream speech resonates, in part, because it references mutually-understood concepts, including Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, bankruptcy, and the Bible.
Complete your thoughts
In what Georgetown linguist Jennifer Sclafani calls “everyday speech”, changing topic mid-sentence is common. Conversations ebb and flow, and as long as all participants are paying attention, tangents are a natural part of conversation.
When it comes to one-way communications, such as presidential speeches or informational messages, a sudden change mid-flow has the opposite effect: it is disruptive, and disturbs meaning. When a message changes unexpectedly, audiences are left unsure what to think and unable to fill in the gaps.
A great way to avoid this pitfall is to plan what to say ahead of time. Knowing the exact purpose of your message – the information you want to communicate – will help you stay on track. Planning around what to say also gives you the chance to think about how best to say it, and for important messages, allows you the time to draft the best statement.
By observing the way leaders address their enormous audience, we can learn how to best communicate on a large scale, engaging a variety of listeners and conveying a message accurately.