Trump: Maverick, lunatic or sensation?
How a demagogue delivers a message
By Carmen Simon, Cognitive Scientist at Rexi Media and author of the book Impossible to Ignore
In June 2015, real estate developer, businessman, media personality and reality TV star Donald Trump announced that he would campaign to the next Republican candidate for President of the United States of America. Since his first speech declaring he wanted to “Make America Great Again” at his self-titled tower in NYC, he has likely polarised opinions more deeply than any other candidate in history. So whatever happens on Election Day, 8th November, canny presenters and influencers can certainly learn a lot from the momentous race.
Here are a few techniques from ‘The Trump’ speaking style, meant not as endorsements but as a practical guide for anyone who creates and delivers content with the intent to persuade.
Use repetitive and simple syntax
Ask anyone on the street and they’ll tell you what Trump stands for. That’s because he’s clearly communicating simple messages in a repetitive way. He may annoy great swathes of his listeners, but people find it easy to remember his viewpoints because his words are easy to understand and repetition is the mother of memory. Consider this excerpt from one of his speeches: “A lot of people up there can’t get jobs. They can’t get jobs, because there are no jobs, because China has our jobs and Mexico has our jobs. They all have jobs.” We don’t necessarily have to agree with what he is saying but notice the simple sentences, where the word “job” appears seven times.
Intuitively, we know the brain needs repetition and simplicity to retain information. However, many business presentations are filled with convoluted syntax and lack repetition. This happens when business presenters want to impress with sophistication and novelty. Analyse your content and consider using repetitive and simple syntax.
Repeat a reward, not just a topic
Repetition can make us memorable or annoying. That fine line is mitigated by what is repeated. We don’t mind hearing repeated phrases if they are connected to a way in which the brain can receive a reward or avoid pain. Having a job is rewarding, and in Trump’s announcement speech, we heard the word “job” more than 20 times. Having money is rewarding, and not having it is painful, so in the same speech, we also heard the word “money” and “dollars” more than 20 times. In many business presentations, we tend to repeat features and specs, but what serves our audiences’ brains better is the future consequence of those features and specs.
Shift the emotional valence of your content
Let’s use the term valence to characterize positive emotions (joy, happiness, delight), and negative ones (anger, fear). A shift in this valence (turning toward a more intense positive or negative emotion) generates a stronger chemical signal in the brain, which means a stronger memory trace. For example, we can express a positive emotion and shift to a double positive, like the excitement of winning a bit of money at a slot machine in the first 2 minutes of using it and the sheer surprise of winning thousands just a minute later. Or we can express a negative emotion and shift to a double negative, such as being annoyed at falling off a bike and shocked when run over by a car immediately after.
Trump is a master of shifting emotional valence. Here is a shift from negative to double negative: “You have a problem with ISIS. You have a bigger problem with China.” Or, here is a shift from positive to double positive (for some audiences): “… I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall.”
Does this polemic technique work? At one point Trump was said to be massively underspending on advertising ($10m to February 2016) compared to both his other Republican runners (the next lowest spender was Ted Cruz at $22m) and his rivals in the Democratic party. Why? His crafty shift in emotional valence constantly rolls into news-worthy behemoth. News outlets can’t help but spread his message – and Trump doesn’t mind if the coverage is double negative because he stirs emotions and builds memories in the process.
One of the biggest mistakes in business presentations – which leads to a lot of forgetting – is that either presenters do not use emotions at all or when they do, the emotion does not shift much in intensity. Of course this can be done responsibly or recklessly, so it’s up to you to decide how you want to be remembered as well as why.
Build vivid images in your audiences’ minds
Many of our memories endure because of visual stimulation. And visual stimulation does not have to be external. In fact, the brain does not differentiate much between experienced visuals and imagined ones. Trump is skilled in building images in his audiences’ minds to make a point and build a memory. Consider these examples: “Take the New England Patriots and Tom Brady and have them play your high school football team. That’s the difference between China’s leaders and our leaders.” Or: “Success appears to happen overnight because we all see stories in newspapers and on TV about previously unknown people who have suddenly become famous. But consider a sequoia tree that has been growing for several hundred years. Just because a television crew one day decides to do a story about that tree doesn’t mean it didn’t exist before.” Business presenters can learn from this technique, particularly when content tends to be overly abstract and generic, which leads to forgetting.
Overall, you don’t have to be a demagogue to be a presentation demigod. Learning from all kinds of speakers will enhance your style and help you make your presentations great again.
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