“Ninety-three percent of the speech is completely different,” said Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.
Indeed, the differences between Melania Trump’s and Michelle Obama’s speeches go beyond common clichés and word choice.
Ms. Trump cast the impression of someone who’s comfortable being watched but not so much being listened to.
She read the best she could – squinting at the tele-prompter –, but her speech and voice use made her sound non-dynamic, indifferent of the words she said, and very conscious of the way she looked.
Her main objective seemed to be: “To do what the spouse of a presidential candidate has to do, and to do it right.” And to be the wife her husband wants to have.
Mrs. Obama, on the contrary, projected the image of someone who had a clear goal to achieve: to communicate. She wanted to share how she thought and felt about her husband, and about her life and the American life, and justice, class, race. And to tell the audience why she believed Barack Obama was the president America needed.
She had practiced her speech. She knew what she was saying and why she was saying it. Her voice aired the emotions her words triggered in her. And she didn’t worry about how she looked or whether she was doing it right.
Voice and breathing
Ms. Trump read the entire speech using her voice at the highest level of energy, both in pitch (her average pitch was 276 Hz, while the average female pitch is 211 Hz), and in intensity (her average intensity was 73 dB, while conversational speech is typically around 60 dB). In my opinion, it’s a mistake to believe that one needs to yell and roar in order to be a compelling public speaker.
Her breathing pattern was ineffective for stage voice use. As a good Pilates enthusiast, she kept her abdominal wall contracted inwards and let her upper ribs do the breathing. This behavior kept her diaphragm from helping create the airflow necessary to an efficient voice production.
As a result, her voice started to crack and break eight minutes into her allocution [listen].
Mrs. Obama used different pitch and intensity levels in different parts of her speech. She started in a conversational voice, and let it flow with the meanings she conveyed. Her average pitch was 224 Hz, and her average intensity, 69 dB. We heard a confident speaker.
Prosody: intonation, emphasis, pauses and pace
Ms. Trump read lines of text that she had not incorporated into herself. She read the piece because she had to, and her intonation patterns were thus repetitive. Like school kids reading in turns at the book club.
She made very small pitch variations (from a low 176 Hz to a high 345 Hz: only one octave). Short pitch variation spans make speakers sound passive, non-dynamic, more kind of talk-the-talk than walk-the-walk persons. It could be her déformation professionnelle (job conditioning): she’s used to pose still while others (the photographers) do the work.
Her pausing pattern was also repetitive. She tended to breath every five to eight words, at a steady pace of 146 to 194 words per minute. For the most part, her pauses were short, meant only to inhale.
The parts of the speech that she emphasized were the lines that would make the audience cheer and clap.
Ms. Trump’s prosody reinforced the notion of disconnect between the speaker and the text.
Mrs. Obama’s spoke words that sounded close to her heart, and hence the intonation evolved along the different parts of the speech. We heard the admiration she had for her parents in the form of an exclamative intonation [listen]. We heard her hope in the American people’s determination in the way she emphasized, by whispering it, the words “I know” in the sentence “So I know first hand (…)” [listen]. She played with the type of voice she used [listen].
The pauses she made to breathe enhanced the perception that Mrs. Obama is an emotional and empathetic speaker. Instead of waiting for the appropriate spot to inhale, she would let her breathing separate words that are grammatically tied together. She said, for example, “He was raised by // grandparents who were working-class folks just like my parents” [listen].
As characteristic in a speaker who let her emotions ooze, the pace and sentence length in Mrs. Obama’s address varied widely. Her utterances were made of two to 23 words, that she pronounced at a pace ranging from 68 to 266 words per minute.
Vagueness versus specifics
“Donald is, and always has been, an amazing leader.”
“You see, instead of going to Wall Street, Barack went to work in neighborhoods that had been devastated by the closing of steel plants.”