When Melania Trump claimed that she wrote her infamous speech at the Republican National Convention herself, I believed her. So bad was that speech.
Apparently, Ms Trump’s mother had taught her to work hard, be true to her word and respect other people. To paraphrase Janan Ganesh’s recent article on Theresa May’s first speech as PM, these statements would only be interesting if one day a political candidate appeared declaring that her mother had brought her up to cheat, slack and treat others with disdain.
Of course it soon transpired that a speechwriter wrote Ms Trump’s speech, apparently stealing a few “gems” from Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech in the process and prompting wide-spread accusations of plagiarism.
I do not think it was plagiarism, however. One can only plagiarise original, elegant writing, whereas banalities and clichés belong to all of us, particularly those who lack vocabulary, imagination or plain willingness to make an effort. And the transformative effect of these banalities on a text cannot be underestimated: just sprinkle a few expressions like “let’s put American people first”, or “bringing nations and peoples together” in your speech, and watch how quickly it becomes devoid of sincerity and character. And credibility.
Read more: How to speak normally in a world of cliches
“I have known of Donald’s love for America ever since we first met”, declared Ms Trump from the podium. Just imagine their first date 20 years ago. “I deeply care for my country, Melania”, says Trump to an attractive Slovenian model 25 years his junior and barely speaking English. “I think we need to accelerate growth, improve employment prospects for the young, reform our medical system. I also think Greenspan is right to keep rates on hold for the moment. Would you agree?”
I am surprised that the formidable Michelle Obama had agreed to speak to a similarly clichéd script. “The only limit to the height of your achievement is the reach of your dreams”, she pronounced in 2008. Apart from having the vomit-inducing taste of “every ghastly US inspirational poster” – as the Spectator’s Rory Sutherland promptly tweeted – this expression is resolutely, blatantly untrue. No matter how far-reaching your dreams and egalitarian the society you live in, your ambition will always be limited by natural ability, luck and circumstances.
So if using language like “let’s put American people first” constitutes plagiarism, businesses should be quick off the mark to copyright the dreadful clichés they communicate in. Otherwise, a food retailer on the forefront of “customer-focused” digital transformation would soon be pressing charges against a utility whose digital transformation is instead “customer-empowered”.
Equally, an energy firm which has just appointed a chief executive with “tremendous insights and perspective” may sue a commodities trader whose chief executive has “tremendous experience and understanding”. A multinational announcing in its interim statement that “this quarter we have made good progress against a backdrop of challenging market conditions” should take issue with a bank which, in the same quarter, has “made good progress against new strategic objectives”. Incidentally, revenues at both declined by double digits in the period in which they claim they had made “good progress”.
But then there is the type of corporate language which is hardly ever plagiarised, but should be in abundance. Like that of the chief executive of a mid-market bank who once wrote in his interim statement: “I am disappointed with our performance this quarter, as we failed to meet the expectations of the market, as well as our own”. Those companies who insult their investors’ intelligence with dire banalities one reporting season after another, do take note.