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An exemplary communicator

/ 12:30 AM November 10, 2016

Remember Ronald Reagan?

When he was elected president of the United States three-and-a-half decades ago, the rest of the world broke out in laughter. Every American abroad was heckled for having a grade-B actor for president. How could this cowboy say anything wise? How could he animate his lethargic nation and bring about change?

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By the time Reagan left office, he was respectfully referred to as “The Great Communicator.” Not only was he able to convey his ideas to his people, he also mounted an economic revolution in the United States. He shifted the great glacier of state-centered economics and opened the door to what was then called “supply-side” economics. On top of all of that, he left office a much-loved president.

What made Reagan, who used to play cowboy roles in second-rate Hollywood movies, become such an effective communicator?

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He did not change his language. He did not couch his message in vague terms. He did not use jargon. In fact, he spoke with utter simplicity to the end—but always with the earnestness and honesty and great love for his people. He believed sincerely in his message and did not need charts or fancy adjectives to get it across.

Rodrigo Duterte is much like Ronald Reagan. No one expects him to deliver an earth-shaking treatise on the human condition. If ever he does that, it will not click. He might as well deliver that treatise in Latin. It is simply not him. People will be incredulous.

When he speaks, he is spontaneous. He is direct to the point. Sometimes he leaves out the noun, as in “Yang mga human rights …” Sometimes he mutters inaudibly, as if speaking to himself. At other times, he leaves half the sentence hanging. Most notoriously, he uses expletives as punctuation marks. But the audience gets it. They get it even when he proposes out-of-the-box ideas. They get it even when he proposes nothing short of a revolution.

In speech after extemporaneous speech, President Duterte has his audiences enthralled. They hang on to his every word. When he pauses to think, there is absolute silence in the hall. When he jokes, there is a ripple of genuine laughter. When he cusses, there is applause.

None would call him an orator. His speeches do not soar. They bite. They jar, like a boxer’s jab.

Yet, he communicates. He bonds with his audience. He leads by his mouth. He speaks and the people follow. He galvanizes the nation without the help of a speech writer. This is the truly startling thing.

This is a gift, to be sure, to be able to lead with raw language. Most other leaders, when they speak to their people, are assisted by the best and brightest, choosing the best turn of phrase and the most exceptional choice of words. They come across with their literary finery.

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Mr. Duterte is different. He comes across unrefined. He speaks an English that is quaint, acquired during his days as prosecutor. His Tagalog is understandably stilted. He does not speak the High German equivalent of Cebuano. He is not given to nuance or complexity. He is certainly not pedantic.

Yet he communicates. And he does so with great power—especially when he speaks with great humility. He inspires, and that is important. He is believed by his own people, and that is indispensable.

Sometimes the credibility of his speech is so powerful it is chilling. When he makes one of his really dry jokes—such as getting instructions from God to clean up his language—many take him literally. When he misspeaks on something or another, his audience thinks he has an insight or a strategy several layers deep and imperceptible to the ordinary mind.

Like Reagan, Mr. Duterte communicates so effectively he is able to lead by what he says. Both of them speak in the simplest way, without adornment and without the words of someone else.

We are not sure if the sheer spontaneity of his speeches need changing. If it ain’t broke, why fix it? It is the pure spontaneity that gives his words the power they have. That is because people basically trust the man. People see the sincerity. People know what they hear is what they get.

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TAGS: Communication, Language, Rodrigo Duterte, Ronald Reagan
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