Communications Lessons from the Angry Cheeto

Published: November 17, 2016

“Is he a Persuader-in-Chief? It can be hard for people to relate to jargon-filled corporate presentations and reports.”

Donald Trump must hold the record for the number of nicknames created for a presidential candidate. From Barbecued Brutus and Vanilla ISIS through to Hair Fuhrer and Darth Hater, the list of monikers appears endless.

Yet despite the ridicule, the Angry Cheeto has risen to become one of the most powerful men in the world.

Dilbert creator Scott Adams attributes Trump’s success to his mastery of persuasion. Trump used his understanding of the human condition to pull off a historic electoral coup. His hate-filled campaign appealed to base nature. His ‘straight-talking’ showed the common touch, giving voice to people fed up with the status quo.

But what, if anything, can we learn from arguably the most negative political campaigner in history?

After all, presidential campaigns are very different to corporate communications.

Trump shows the value of keeping communications simple. Small words and short, punchy sentences resonate in an era of 140 character tweets, Snapchat and TV soundbites. Trump’s (Flesch-Kincaid) readability score was the lowest of any presidential candidate, with most of his speeches understandable (and some might say written) by a 10-year-old, ensuring he appealed across educational divides.

Rightly or wrongly, this persuasive technique increases the perception of authenticity. It can be hard for people to relate to jargon-filled corporate presentations and reports.

Trump shows the importance of using emotion to create rapport and drive action. He uses words that brim with emotional feeling like ‘huge’, ‘terrible’ and ‘beautiful’. His campaign slogan – (We Can) Make America Great Again – plays to a sense of aspiration and taps into nostalgia. Much like Nigel Farage and Ukip, Trump spouts a brand of populism thin on specifics but thick with generalist calls to national pride and taking back control.

Businesses cannot play fast and loose with the facts in the way that Trump does and need to be careful when stepping into the political arena (witness the backlash against New Balance for supporting the President-Elect’s trade policy). But organisations need to remember to appeal to emotion as well as reason to win hearts and minds.

“An emotional speaker always makes his audience feel with him, even when there is nothing in his arguments; which is why many speakers try to overwhelm their audience by mere noise” — Aristotle, Rhetoric

Trump demonstrates the value in creating conflict and nurturing a ‘them versus us’ mentality. His appalling pledge to build a wall between the US and Mexico tapped into the worst of people’s anger, bigotry and fears. But his ability to seemingly side with the people against corrupt and out-of-touch politicians and vested interests worked in his favour. Instead of ‘understanding’ that there are lots of ‘issues’ to address, Trump made a huge play of providing black and white answers, claiming that “…politicians are all talk and no action”.

In public at least, business to business communications and relations are often more consensual than conflicting. But organisations like Virgin, Ryanair and Uber have made a great play of questioning the status quo and championing the needs and rights of specific groups. Challenger and disruptor brands recognise the value of real or perceived conflict to generate awareness, drive engagement and build support. And genuine thought leadership requires that organisations fundamentally question assumptions that may have held true for decades.

Intentionally or not, Trump’s approach also thrives off the mental shortcuts we all adopt. Because he looks like a successful businessman, many voters – including high-profile celebrity supporters like Mike Tyson and Denis Rodman – believe that he is equally well-equipped to run the US.

Because people can easily recall examples of terrorist attacks, Trump’s calls for immigration curbs are more likely to resonate. Even though more people in the US die from lightning strikes each year.

Businesses are applying behavioural lessons in product design, HR and sales strategy. But there needs to be a greater application in external and internal communications. Communications are more likely to work and achieve genuine outcomes if they’re based on an understanding of how people really think and make decisions.

Persuasion itself is often regarded as a pejorative term and talked about in hushed tones in PR and communications circles. Trump’s application of persuasion techniques is extreme, regularly tapping into the worse parts of human nature. Some of our communications programmes are purely intended to educate and inform; but most have an action in mind – be that to read a report, fill in a form or buy a service- that requires an element of persuasion.

As bitter as the pill may be to swallow, business communicators would be wise to consider what they can learn from the persuasive, and seemingly all-pervasive, Mango Mussolini.

Simon Maule

2 Responses to “Communications Lessons from the Angry Cheeto”

  1. Suzanne Snowden says:

    Simon, so pleased to see someone analysis this. I completely agree and the thing i have observed is the ability to really judge ones audience. One day the baseball cap is on – the next its a presidential style of delivery. For me a reminder of the first rule in good communications: work out who you are communicating to!

    • Simon Maule says:

      Thanks Suzanne, you’re right – Trump certainly knows how to connect with his core audience, using repetition, exaggeration and humour to win people round. The science behind persuasion is a really interesting area.

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