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Trump’s Terrifying Communication Effectiveness

by Shari Graydon
Shock and awe: Donald Trump's communication style is as riveting as a train wreck. And just as dangerous.

Shock and awe: Donald Trump’s communication style is as riveting as a train wreck, but a lot more dangerous. And his effectiveness has its limits. (photo by Joshua Lott, Getty Images)  

As professional communicators who advise others on how to improve their ability to connect with audiences, colleague Sarah Neville and I have watched the astonishing ascension of political neophyte and insult-machine Donald Trump with dropped jaws. Here’s our conversation about the lessons to be learned from his fearless communication style, originally published on Huffington Post.

SARAH: When — and yes, this is a fervent wish — Donald Trump loses the US federal election, I’d consider hiring him as a communication coach.

Don’t get me wrong. I find his ignorance, racism and sexism repugnant. But he is a salesman to the core and boy, can he sell. Yes, I wish he’d use his powers for good rather than evil. But it’s hard not to be in awe of a real estate promoter with no political experience who’s made it this close to the Oval Office. And it’s his communication skills that have gotten him there.

SHARI: I agree that he is compellingly watchable, in a train wreck kind of a way. Despite – or perhaps because of! – his breathtaking lack of knowledge, integrity and basic human decency, he’s a master at crafting and delivering messages that resonate – at least with some people.

The trouble is most clients in the market for communications advice aren’t uneducated white men who feel disenfranchised by what’s happening in the world today! And I suspect his ability to adapt his tools to a broader audience are profoundly limited.

SARAH: That’s true. But you have to give him credit for what he does well.

Number one, he keeps it simple. I’m always pushing my business clients to use more accessible language. When we receive information verbally, simple words are easier to process – even for highly intelligent folks. But we feel it makes us look smarter if we cloak our ideas in fancy words:

“Competitive advantage will be achieved through continued focus on our core competencies, allowing us to leverage…” Trump absolutely avoids this trap.

The Boston Globe used the Flesch-Kincaid reading test to assess the announcement speeches of all candidates to determine grade level of the language used. Trump’s speech could have been understood by a 4th grader. From “Make America Great Again”, to “no one’s better than me at building walls”, he speaks to the masses. Because – again in his words – he “loves the poorly educated.”

SHARI: Yes, as long as they’re not crying babies grabbing focus at one of his rallies…

Another thing he does effectively is to reinforce his key messages over and over again. Conventional wisdom in the advertising world is that it takes seven repetitions before a slogan or product feature starts to become memorable. Trump has no resistance to hammering the same message home – regardless of how accurate it is — at every opportunity. His claims start to take on a life of their own. People failing to access their information from other sources are inclined to believe the assertions.

Nor do they realize that when he tweets “many people are saying” and then adds a demonstrably untrue accusation against his opponent, he’s actually the “many people” he’s referring to.

SARAH: Well, he certainly avoids the ‘data dump’ that I’m so often steering people away from. Most speakers dilute their arguments by over-sharing their research and analytics, citing way too many statistics and sources. Not only does complex language obscure meaning, so does over-reliance on data-driven evidence. Trump has no such burden.

Where he really shows brilliance is in knowing his audience and speaking directly to them. He often uses the 2nd person, addresses his audience head-on, in what’s known in linguistics as “directive speech acts”, where the speaker actually commands the listener to do something. “Look at Paris…”. He addresses us directly, as if continuing a conversation. It’s a powerful linguistic device that creates both immediacy and intimacy.

Like any good salesman, he sells the feeling, not the idea. Never mind that the finer points of policy are glossed over or entirely absent. He appeals to our emotions, whether it be joy and pride: “You’re going to be so happy”; or fear:”You have people coming through the border that are from all over. And they’re bad. They’re really bad.”

SHARI: Unpacking the components of his effectiveness really helps to make sense of a phenomenon that is otherwise head-smackingly incomprehensible. People who admire him cite his willingness to “tell it like it is” (by which they mean, to voice views that they themselves hold, but have not felt permission to express). So even though so many of his assertions qualify as “pants on fire” lies, as tracked by Politifact, his supporters see him as being authentic.

At the same time, he has managed to reinforce his brand — successful businessman — in the face of much evidence to the contrary, by doggedly proclaiming what a “winner” he is and by engaging in a scorched earth warfare of words that others are unwilling to match. So he ends up owning the field.

And yet even though, as you point out, he regularly employs the second person, he also breaks the speechwriter’s rule about the perils of excessive use of “I.” His interviews and speeches are peppered with exhaustive references to himself. Here’s a classic Trump interview response: “I’ve been, you know, I’ve been doing things for a long time. I see it all the time. I mean I see it so often. I see it when…” In the absence of other credible sources backing up his self-proclaimed wisdom, isn’t this finally wearing thin?

SARAH: Time will tell, and fingers crossed. Part of his scorched earth warfare is to say things that are utterly memorable. Calling the pope “disgraceful”? Insisting that Obama is the founder of ISIS? It’s hard to forget this stuff. And so his statements become lodged in our brains. And we keep talking about them.

You’ve also demonstrated another of his linguistic traits, which is to continually interrupt himself and veer off into asides and digressions. He often adds parentheses to his parentheses. While I wouldn’t call this a communication “best practice,” in Trump’s case he keeps listeners on their toes, stretching to follow the thread of his thought. That element of surprise keeps us waiting for what’s next.

SHARI: His interview with the editorial board of the Washington Post was a classic example of that. Reading the transcript felt like being dragged down a confusion of leading-nowhere corridors in the constantly short-circuiting brain of a megalomaniac man-child. But I see what you’re saying about the entertainment value of the resulting suspense. And if your audience doesn’t consider coherence or focus as important criteria by which to gauge your credibility, those corridors are as fun as a hall of mirrors at the amusement park!

Here’s the question, though: most of our clients looking to improve their presentation skills aren’t larger than life reality TV billionaires. How many of Trump’s strategies — as effective as they are for him — are likely to be useful to the rest of us?

SARAH: Valid question. Nobody’s likely to view a battalion of Trump-style-speakers as a public service. But we can borrow from the best elements of his style: he keeps his ideas simple and memorable; he knows his audience and addresses them directly; he appeals to their emotions.

So sure, try this at home — but with caution!

One Reply to “Trump’s Terrifying Communication Effectiveness”

  1. Laurie L Kummerer says:

    Have either of you actually listened to an entire speech by Donald Trump? Have you read his book, “the Art of the Deal” or bothered to see why he is call the “Blue Collar Millionaire”? You should, before you espouse all kinds of rhetorical vitriol and call it news or opinions worth knowing.

    Donald Trump, at least, has not lied to the entire nation under oath and on camera. He has not deleted emails on a private server so that his “dirty little secrets” of selling the State Department through a “foundation” of “charity” . He hasn’t hidden from the media when he isn’t wild about what is said or written about him. He isn’t “ignorant”, he went to an ivy league college. He is smart like a fox. He uses strategy that will work, and I am sick of the biased media trying to “pretend” that he is so horribly awful, when he is no worse than any of the other candidates to ever run for president.

    The difference with Donald Trump is that he is not a “polished” and “play the game” politician that Wallstreet, the Media, and all the Unions are used to being able to size up and and push down. He has the audacity to actually stand up for what most “working Americans” want to hear. We want our economy back. We think that selling out to Iran was stupid and will end up funding nuclear war from the people who hate us. We are not willing to take another four years under Hillary Clinton without at least voting for a change. We may not agree with every single word he says, but at least he understands what it is like to feel like you are left out of the opinions and voice of America.

    It isn’t just “white men” who are rallying around Donald Trump. Wait until after the first debate and see who all rallies behind him.

    Even some liberal media are starting to question the “Clinton” teflon and how they never have to pay for their wrongs. Isn’t it strange that the same kind of “pay for play” things happened in the White House when Bill was president, are now being brought to light about Hillary now that she isn’t a regular in the White House as head of the State Dept?

    And even more disturbing about our current administration is that no one has managed to find out where our illustrious President Obama was when the deluge happened in Bengazi, and why on earth the Administration thought that normal and thinking people would believe that the Embassy was set on fire and besieged by people upset by an “internet video” supposedly against their Prophet Mohammed.

    Lies. All lies. The current administration, and the Clintons likewise, have always acted as if normal, hard-working Americans able to think, read, and reason were stupid and uneducated, and not able to push a lever to vote. But it isn’t so, and we will vote, and in massive numbers.

    Donald Trump may not always know all of the ends and outs of a subject, and he might phrase things awkwardly, and he might have to “walk back an opinion or ideal” because he is now seeing the unsuitability fiscal reality of it, but at least he doesn’t just out and out lie. To hard working Americans, lying is just as bad, if not worse than, any crime you could commit because it proves that you cannot be trusted. The media threw the book at poor President Nixon for much, much less than this, and yet, they make fun of the man by saying things like “I am not a crook,” to pretend to be him, and it is a statement he never made. However, Hillary Clinton cannot say the same with her pay to play games, can she?

    What common Americans are BURNING UP MAD about is the fact that their sons and daughters who work for the military, or who are in the military, if they did anything even 1/10th as careless as what Hillary Clinton and her aides have done recently, they would be brought up on charges, persecuted to the fullest extent of the Military Law, which is much more harsh than she would face, and yet, she gets out of harm’s way? What gives? Normal, reasoning and thinking Americans think that the scenario stinks to high heaven!!

    If you are going to criticize Donald Trump, at least try getting the facts. And you liberals, why don’t you know that when you point your finger at someone, there are three others pointing back at you?

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