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Increase Your Dynamism - Don't Be Jeb: A "Low-Energy Person"

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has picked his preferred insult for fellow GOP hopeful Jeb Bush. On at least six occasions over the past few days, the Donald has referred to the Jeb as a "low-energy person." He doesn't have strength, passion, or enthusiasm, Trump says, at least not so much that we would ever get away with calling him “the Jeb.” It’s clever politics: Trump’s way of turning Bush’s comparative calm and maturity into a point against him. I have no criticism of Jeb Bush’s style, but Trump’s use of “low energy” as an insult reflects an underlying reality about credibility. One of the basic psychological factors in determining credibility is dynamism (the other principle factors are competence, honesty, and similarity). Communicators who are able to convey or to be associated with change and activity – dynamism -- aren’t just better able to gain attention, they’re also more likely to be believed and trusted.

jeb bush donaldy trump caricature

Now, before anyone jumps to any conclusions, this isn’t an endorsement (Persuasive Litigator doesn’t make endorsements) and it isn’t a claim that Trump is or isn't broadly trusted. But he does have one thing going for him: He isn’t a low-energy person. The combination of his personal style, his political goals, and the current sociocultural milieau have created a situation where Trump seems to be the most dynamic communicator in the room. The advantages of being dynamic and high energy translate to courtroom communications as well. In this post, I’ll take a look at the benefits of communication dynamism, and will also share some thoughts on the stylistic and substantive ways speakers can increase their own dynamism.

The Benefits of Dynamism

Yesterday I was in the middle of Ohio to wrap up a string of witness meetings, starting the day with my express hotel’s “breakfast.” You know the setting: a common room with a blaring television where business travelers and families are competing over stale waffles and rubbery eggs. The TV is dialed to CNN morning news and Donald Trump comes on for one of his ubiquitous live and off-the-cuff commentaries. As he starts in on his monologue – this time justifying his retweets describing Fox commentator Megyn Kelly as a “bimbo,” promising to “make American great again,” and (once more) calling Jeb Bush a “low-energy person” – I notice that everyone in the room, including the food server who should’ve been refilling the coffee pots, stops what they were doing in order to give their full attention to the screen. Plastic forks are lowered and conversations stop as every single person is now suddenly listening. It was fascinating to watch: his supporters and detractors, along with the media, apparently brought together in a “What’s he going to say next?” moment of shared curiosity.

Marshall McLuhan, the early mass communications theorist, talked about the qualities of “Hot” and “Cool,” originally applied to different media, but later adapted to different personalities and contexts within these media. To be “Hot” is to be richly detailed, high- definition, and to require little in the way of interpretation or participation on the part of the audience. To be “Cool,” on the other hand, is to offer less information, lower definition, and to require more work from the audience in order to understand and apply the message. Based on that distinction, Trump is “Hot” – love him or hate him, his style and messages are active, obvious, and eminently well-suited to the sound bite era and today’s tweet- and meme-driven political culture.  

What can work for political personalities can work -- in different forms and to a far more subtle degree -- for communicators in the courtroom as well. Attorneys and witnesses can benefit from the advice to convey higher energy and to not be a Jeb.

Some Ways to be Dynamic in Trial

Despite what might be the connotation, being “dynamic” as a courtroom communicator doesn’t mean bouncing off the walls with the enthusiasm of a game-show host. And it certainly doesn’t mean being Donald Trump. Instead, dynamism just means building in the essential qualities of change and activity into your substance and your delivery. This can be done with subtlety, and in a courtroom atmosphere, it should be. But advocates and witnesses who avoid the low-energy label will be more attention-gaining and more believable.

Dynamic Content

Nothing is worse than a one-note message. The substance of what you’re saying should include movement and frequent change. That means:

    • Not staying on any one point for too long.

    • Finding creative rather than redundant ways to repeat and emphasize.

    • Building in frequent transitions (chapters) and making sure your listeners know you’re moving from one point to the next.

    • Mixing up the media you use to convey a point (flip charts, slides, boards).

    • Following the natural movement of a story.

    • Focusing on the action that you’re requesting from your audience.

Dynamic Style 

It’s hard to listen to flat delivery for any length of time. Your use of voice and body should also be dynamic. That means:

    • Using your face in a way that is relaxed, animated, and sincere.

    • Moving in different places to deliver your message, to the extent you can stray from the lectern.

    • Varying your pitch so your voice conveys the highs and lows of conversational delivery.

    • Using the pace of your message, speeding up to build energy and slowing down to add emphasis.

    • Gesturing in ways that are meaningful, and not distracting or redundant.

All things being equal, the more dynamic communicator is going to be more credible and more influential. Of course, in the real world, all things aren’t equal, and it is possible that Trump’s dynamism is bringing as much or more negative attention as positive attention. In other words, in some settings and for some audiences, he is being “dynamically bad.” The possibility I’ve discussed before is that he is riling his base at the cost of further alienating the majority needed to win. It’s a good reminder for the more necessarily broad-based persuaders in the courtroom: Find ways to be dynamic, but without bringing offense and without being needlessly provocative. 

Copyright Holland & Hart LLP 1995-2022.National Law Review, Volume V, Number 240

About this Author

Ken Broda-Bahm, Ph.D., Holland Hart, Rhetoric lawyer, Legal Persuasion Attorney
Senior Litigation Consultant

Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm has provided research and strategic advice on several hundred cases across the country for the past 16 years, applying a doctorate in communication emphasizing the areas of legal persuasion and rhetoric. As a tenured Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Dr. Broda-Bahm has taught courses including legal communication, argumentation, persuasion, and research methods. He has trained and consulted in 19 countries around the world and is Past President of the American Society of Trial Consultants.