Know your audience, the skill of effective communication

Sauli Niinistö, President of Finland, addresses the general debate of the General Assembly’s seventy-second session.

With the 72nd Opening of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) this week, eyes are turned to New York City and the parade of heads of state to address the world’s diplomats. As always, the opening address by the new UNGA president, MIROSLAV LAJČÁK, emphasized the year’s goals and themes. Among those topics were the climate and sustainable development.

In contrast, some heads of state took the opportunity to wage rhetorical war on other states. Speeches delivered by world leaders (Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu) were devoid of the typical diplomatic and formulaic form of address used in UNGA debates and assemblies.

Let’s take a moment to consider US President, Donald Trump’s address from a legal communication perspective. Mr. Trump’s speech writer, Stephen Miller, appears to have thrown diplomatic formality to the wind. In fact, he discarded a cardinal rule for effective communication: KNOW THY AUDIENCE.  Certainly, all good communicators think first about their audience. At least that is what I say to my first year Legal Representation students when explaining how to be an effective communicator in the myriad of venues where international law practitioners may find themselves. The discourse used in a court, with its adversarial setting differs from the language used in a mediation or a negotiation where you are attempting to find common ground with other parties. And what about speeches before UN bodies? The UN is a forum for diplomats. There are formulaic ways to address the assembly and its occupants.

The president started off well when he addressed his audience, beginning with: Mr. Secretary General, Mr. President, world leaders, and distinguished delegates. But, his speech quickly deteriorated. Mr. Trump began to attack his fellow world leaders.

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President Trump referred to his North Korean counterpart as a “Rocket Man … on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.” He also used the word “depraved” to describe the same regime. When referencing Iran, Mr. Trump alleged that the regime “masks a corrupt dictatorship behind the false guise of a democracy.” He also used the phrase “rogue state” in connection with Teheran’s government.

While hostile and angry rants are not unheard of in UNGA opening sessions (Castro, Chávez and G.W. Bush all delivered infamously negative addresses at the UNGA), Trump’s speech was especially memorable for what he did not mention. Climate change and environment were never invoked- two of the weighty topics of the day. Yet sovereignty or sovereign were used nearly two dozen times. Mr. Trump championed putting national goals first, a concept that seems to directly clash with the UN Charter’s declaration in its preamble to”employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples.” The apparent lack of familiarity with general concepts and principles of international law were also evident in his declaration that we have not heard the last of the “Iran Deal.” Where is the notion of pacta sunt servanda and sovereign nations adhering to obligations voluntarily incurred in bilateral agreements?

No, Mr. Trump and his speechwriter have not employed even the basic tenants of effective communication. I heartily concur with Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom who described Trump’s speech as “the wrong speech, at the wrong time, to the wrong audience.”


Legal Skills Lecturer in The Netherlands. (J.D. Columbia University; PhD Maastricht University International Human Rights Law.)

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