Calvin Coolidge had a reputation for being a pretty straight-laced kind of guy. The president who led the United States throughout the prosperous Roaring Twenties was a man of few words – so much so that he earned the nickname ‘Silent Cal’.
But even he had his moments of eccentricity. In the summer of 1927, he reportedly spent much of a three-month vacation in the Black Hills of Dakota dressed in a cowboy outfit given to him for his fifty-fifth birthday. The outfit included a five-gallon hat, bright red shirt, a voluminous neckerchief and chaps embroidered with the name ‘CAL’ in letters five inches high.
I offer that image as a way of pointing out that the present incumbent at the White House is by no means the only colourful character to occupy it. Even so, his first fifteen months as president have been remarkably turbulent, including firing his communications director (who was in office for only ten days), the acting attorney general and the director of the FBI; and forcing his chief of staff to resign.
As I write this, the latest to go is secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who was reportedly sacked while sitting on the toilet. [Stop press: since I first drafted this post, Trump has fired national security adviser General H.R. McMaster.]
The secret of Trump’s popularity
This is not a political blog and I’m not a political expert, so I won’t offer an opinion on Donald Trump’s suitability for the role of US president. But what I will offer is what I believe is one major reason he’s still in the Oval Office and evidently still popular with many people – something that certainly puzzles many commentators.
Let’s look at the numbers first. Around 63 million people voted for him in 2016. That’s equivalent to almost the entire population of the United Kingdom. His popularity has dipped a fair bit since then, for sure. Yet his approval rating among adults registered or likely to vote (41.6% as I write this) indicates that more than 53 million people still think he’s worthy of the role.
For many, this fact is very difficult to reconcile with their image of Trump and their idea of how a president should behave. They ask how someone given to late-night policy announcements on Twitter, an often erratic communication style and a penchant for shooting from the hip can still be popular with so many people.
The answer, I believe, is not that he’s popular in spite of his style. In my opinion, his popularity is largely because of his communication style. Incongruous though it may seem, those Coca-Cola and double-cheeseburger-fueled rants and stumbling his way through sentences are, somehow, connecting with tens of millions of people. Nor is this just a hunch. There is sound science behind my belief.
President Trump may not know the science. But he does understand his audience very, very well. And, as I’ve written elsewhere, understanding your audience is the key to communicating effectively.
We’re emotional first, then logical
Critically, what he understands more than many of his rivals and former rivals – including, apparently, Hillary Clinton – is that people are not as logical as we think they are. Emotion is important too. In fact, from an evolutionary perspective, it’s far more important. Our emotional responses are generally much faster than our logical ones. Often they’re straight out of the gate and logic struggles to catch up (if it ever does).
So let’s look at that science in more detail, then relate it back to how the president communicates.
The first thing to understand is that facts have their limitations. They don’t tend to change people’s views as much as we think or would like them to. Yes, they have their place, but that place is usually to convince people that their emotions are right.
The emotions we’re talking about here are sometimes subtle. We may not even notice them: they could just be a vague sense of being, say, irritated or threatened. But even subtle feelings colour our subsequent opinions. And that includes opinions about things that have nothing to do with whatever made us feel that way in the first place.
So if we don’t take care of people’s emotions, often we might as well not bother with the facts, as people will either ignore or interpret them in a way that merely reinforces whatever opinion they hold already. And if you think that your above-average intelligence makes you immune to such weakness, I have bad news: people who are more analytical actually show an increased tendency to twist facts to confirm their opinions.
Fear is one of the most powerful emotions of all. If you can play on fear (of, say, immigrants) so that people form an opinion, then back it up with facts – even if they’re ‘alternative’ facts (ie made up) – people will become far, far more entrenched in whatever opinion they happen to hold already.
Trump is the master of this. He plays on people’s emotions for all he’s worth. It’s what makes him, in my view, the Pied Piper of Politics.
Yes, I know that he frequently drops or mumbles words. I realise too that he often fails to finish sentences. And I understand that his tweets are often only semi-literate or riddled with typos.
But he is also a consummate salesman who developed his skills not (I assume) by reading psychology journals but through selling real estate over several decades. As a result, he knows exactly which words will produce a reaction from his target ‘customers’ (voters).
The fact that his speeches and answers to the questions of interviewers are often garbled is almost irrelevant when it comes to saying things that resonate with his audience. I suspect that his peculiar style is deliberate. Keeping to the conventions of polished political rhetoric is low on his list of priorities. He knows that emotions are his secret weapon.
Pressing the buttons
He knows exactly which buttons to press to get a rise from the electorate (including those people who are dissatisfied with their lives). What matters most to him is not just pressing those buttons but doing it as often as possible and at the point in each sentence where he knows they’ll have the biggest impact – the end. Everything else is just filler. In doing so, he’s using the well-established primacy and recency effect, which says that we remember firsts and lasts more than we remember ‘in betweens’.
So, let’s take a closer look at what he says.
The blogger Evan Puschak (aka The Nerdwriter) dissected a Trump interview by American TV chat-show host Jimmy Kimmel a couple of years ago. I’ve included screenshots with captions in this post. (There’s a link to the full, compelling video in the notes at the end of this article.)
Bad grammar is at best irrelevant
In the above screengrab from the interview, the statement Trump is making is obviously ungrammatical (missing the word ‘are’). But that’s not important. Notice how the president has paused on a highly-emotive word. This will make a big impact on the brain: ‘die’ is one of the most charged words in the English language. In a Canadian study of almost 14,000 words to find which triggered the biggest emotional reaction, that word came in at number 48.
(Many of the top 50 in that study are obscenities. I won’t write them here, not just because they are definitely not suitable for work but because they are so strong as to be very distracting. You simply can’t ignore them.)
In fact, he did this repeatedly in that interview:
It’s as if he is lobbing out ‘hot’ words like emotion grenades that land with his followers and would-be voters. Those are the words that resonate with his target audience. And, as Puschak points out, it almost doesn’t matter what other words are in the sentence. Just saying them is enough.
This is just one transcript, of course. But the others I’ve analysed show a similar pattern. It’s noticeable, for example, in an interview with Associated Press White House correspondent Julie Pace from last year:
Many people, human rights people, are talking about it. It’s an incredible thing, especially when you meet her. You realize — I mean, she was in a rough place …
Nor is this something he’s only just started doing. A PBS interview with Charlie Rose from 1992 shows a remarkably similar style.
A lot of people went down. The economy was in a horrible condition, just a deplorable condition. The politicians destroyed the economy in 1986 when they passed a tax law that just destroyed the real estate investor which in turn destroyed the banks and the savings banks and savings and loans. I really got very lucky when I built the Taj Mahal which everyone said, ‘That’s going to be his downfall.’ The Taj Mahal is over $1 billion building. It’s turned out to be one of the best deals I’ve ever made. It broke records for the last three months. It went over $40 million a month. No casino in history has won anywhere near that. All three of my casinos were rated four stars by the Mobile Travel Guide. They’re the only casinos in the United States that are so rated. It’s really been an incredible period of six or seven months for me. It’s really been gratifying. Now they really want to do the comeback stories and everything else. I think I probably care less about that than I would have maybe three or four years ago but it’s been a pretty good experience for me.
They’re by no means always emotionally charged words, but they are the ones that, collectively, create an overall feeling. Taken together, they create a mood. They’re the words he wants you to remember, even when you’ve forgotten everything else.
This is reducing influential communication down to its most basic elements. What Trump is doing is not so much conveying information as creating a feeling. He’s constructing a background on which his target audience can paint their own hopes and fears.
To say his communication style is not what we normally expect from a president is to put it mildly. But, again, that is probably a major reason for his popularity. It’s a deliberate counter to the polished spin of media-trained politicians. This backlash has been brewing for a while.
Robin Lakoff, Professor of Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, noted over a decade ago that we increasingly want politicians to sound unrehearsed. ‘We increasingly want to see, and insist on interpreting, public figures as private friends or family members,’ she said, way back in 2005. In doing so, we also apply much broader criteria for likeability, which should not be confused with whether we think someone is nice.
Short words, short sentences
Another reason his style resonates is that he uses short words and sentences. He uses 220 words a minute in the Kimmel interview, of which more than three quarters (78 per cent) have only one syllable. Short words make fewer demands on our brain’s resources, leaving us free to get fired up. Not only that, but he appears to swallow words that are longer than two syllables. As Puschak points out, it’s as if those are not important. (They’re italicised in the above screengrab.)
His sentences are also typically very short. In the PBS interview, they’re less than 11 words long, on average. My own research comparing this with Clinton has found that her sentences are typically more than twice that length.
But it’s the effects of language that provokes an emotional response that I think are most interesting and most significant. Those effects can be far reaching and far from trivial, as neuroscientists are now discovering. Making someone angry or fearful doesn’t just change their mood: it can change their decisions and what they think the consequences of those decisions will be.
Psychologists, too, know that anger, for instance, has been proven to cause us to wildly overestimate our abilities, leading us to play down risks and underestimate our chances of failure. This means that at work, for example, just one email that puts us in a bad mood could significantly affect our judgement, creating a knock-on effect on many of the decisions we make that day. This could easily have repercussions that eventually spread throughout our organisation.
And in the case of the US election, the precision use of such emotional trigger words may have led millions to underestimate the effects of electing a maverick president with no experience of public office. It may well have been what delivered one of the biggest upsets in political history.
How does Trump White House turnover compare with Bush, Obama?: Tobias, M. (2017) Politifact
People who have above-average analytical skills are more likely to twist facts to confirm their opinions: Kahan, et al (2017). Motivated numeracy and enlightened self government. Behavioural Public Policy 1(01), 54-86
Jimmy Kimmell interview analysis video: How Donald Trump answers a question. Puschak, Evan (2015). The Nerdwriter, YouTube
Votes for Trump and Clinton in 2016 election: CNN (2016). 2016 Election Results https://edition.cnn.com/election/2016/results
Trump approval rating now: Silver, Nate (Accessed March 2018). How popular/unpopular is Donald Trump? FiveThirtyEight
Research on most emotionally charged words in the English language: Warriner, A et al (2013). Norms of valence, arousal, and dominance for 13,915 English lemmas. Behavioural Research Methods, 45(4), 1191-1207.
Charlie Rose PBS interview transcript: Factbase (Accessed March 2018). PBS Interview with Charlie Rose and Donald Trump – November 6, 1992
We increasingly want politicians to sound unrehearsed: Lakoff, Robin (2005). The politics of nice. Journal of Politeness Research, 1(2), 173–191.
Image credits: Library of Congress, Evan Puschak/YouTube, Factba.se
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