Whenever I watched television coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign, I couldn’t look away. I felt like I was witnessing a car crash in slow motion, expecting final impact at any moment. I wanted to see if Donald Trump would self-destruct. How could he possibly survive after dissing John McCain’s heroic military service? Surely, he won’t get away with making fun of a disabled reporter. What about his bloody insults of Megyn Kelly or his response to the release of the egregious Access Hollywood tape? Was he really so stupid to think that American women would stand for this?
But alas, Trump wasn’t necessarily being stupid. He may have known exactly what he was doing, which was trying to persuade a skeptical public to vote for him. He has distinctive storytelling instincts, which started being honed in his childhood, when his family attended Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan and regularly listened to its famous pastor, Norman Vincent Peale. Mostly known for preaching can-do optimism and for his bestselling book, “The Power of Positive Thinking,” Peale was condemned as a con man by many critics. But he also had a captivating speaking style, and Trump gushed about the pastor’s sermons, saying: “You could listen to him all day long. And when you left the church, you were disappointed it was over.”
Love him or hate him, Trump appears to have a gut sense about sustaining drama, knowing just when to inject new conflicts into a narrative to keep audiences engaged. He’s figured out the benefits of unexpected plot twists and crises, and he understands the power of distraction. In the campaign, he used his own successes and failures to fuel his story’s suspense. Watching Trump was like “watching a tightrope walker adding increasingly more difficult tricks,” one New York Times reader wrote, commenting on a campaign story. People expected a fall any moment. “He can’t get away with that and still remain standing,” she wrote. “And yet, he takes another step.”
Once Trump became president, the way he controlled narratives and deployed marketing tricks became more apparent. Many of his techniques, though, aren’t so obvious, and while you may never want to imitate some of them, they are worth examining.
The best storytellers of the 20th century were Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler, contends Hollywood consultant Robert McKee, pointing out that storytelling is a tool that can be used for good or ill. So, trying to set politics aside for a moment, it’s interesting to consider whether Trump may be able to teach us something about persuasion.
Consider a study by Persado, an artificial intelligence company that analyzed 92,780 words from 98 of Trump’s presidential speeches. The company discovered that Trump used positive language to reassure insecure voters and delivered emotionally-charged messages to appeal to his base. He repeated positive adverbs over and over and over, using “very” 1,193 times, “great” 609 times and “very very” 111 times.
Repetition is a hallmark of persuasion, says Scott Adams, the cartoonist who created Dilbert and recently wrote about Trump’s methods in a controversial book, entitled “How to Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter.” Trump often ends sentences with “It’s true. It’s true,” Adams says, because if you frequently hear that something is true, “it biases you to think there might be something to it.” Similarly, when Trump goes out of his way to say “many people are saying,” that’s an example of “social proof” persuasion, Adams says, since people are wired to believe that if lots of people are saying the same thing, it must be true.
Adams, a trained hypnotist and student of persuasion, calls Trump a “Master Persuader,” going so far as to say: “Trump is the most persuasive human I have ever observed.” He takes readers on a tour of the cardinal rules of persuasion validated by leading cognitive psychologists, and shows again and again how Trump knows how to manipulate them all.
Take being memorable. That’s key for persuasion, and Trump clearly is the king of the catchy slogan. Just look at the unconventional nicknames that he devises for his political opponents, which Adams says are especially memorable because they violate public expectations of decorum.
And all the talk about The Wall? That dovetailed with a corollary to the memorable rule: People are more likely to remember visual language and imagery. Notice the enormous difference between a politician talking about immigration control and building a “big beautiful wall.” People may have different images of that wall, but everyone can picture it — and remember it.
Trump wants to control voters’ energy and focus, Adams says, because people irrationally believe that whatever captures their attention must be extremely important. So, seemingly crazy exaggerations or ostensibly stupid mistakes actually may be deliberate tactics aimed at persuasion.
Virtually all persuasion tactics — and many storytelling techniques — are based on emotional undercurrents that continually influence us. “People are irrational 90 percent of the time but don’t know it,” Adams says. “We are almost never rational when it comes to matters of love, family, pets, politics, ego, entertainments, and almost anything else that matters to use emotionally. When our feelings turn on, our sense of reason shuts off.”