Persuasion, Zest

What Comms Teams Must Learn From Trump

If your job involves engaging people and convincing them to believe your message, then it is essential to understand the role emotion plays in decision making – and the lessons we can take from Donald Trump’s electoral success.

What the Heart Wants

"The heart wants what it wants or else it does not care" wrote Emily Dickinson. And now thanks to neuroscience we know just how right she was. So before we talk about corporate communications and Donald Trump, let's talk about love.
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Or you could just get married to get on TV 
(Picture: Channel4, Married at First Sight) 
For many people marriage is a fantastic institution. The union of two people for richer and poorer, in sickness and in health until death do you part - or at the very least until you can afford a competent divorce lawyer so that cheating *!&$*!! doesn't get custody of the goldfish you bought together last spring.

Somewhat surprisingly given that this is the 21st century (and therefore the future), there are roughly four times as many couples who are married than are simply living together as a couple. Sadly, almost half of these marriages will end in divorce. Does that mean they were a bad decision to start with? 

You may be married; you may be happily or unhappily single; you may be happily or unhappily divorced. Whichever of these categories you fall into, it's probable that marriage has, at some point crossed your mind. Who though? Do you have a checklist of ideal attributes for your perfect partner, or do you go with your gut? That emotional trembling in the pit of your stomach that told that truly, s/he's the one? That indefinable feeling when you gazed into each other's' eyes?

How many of us sat down and thought logically about what is/was/will be the biggest decision of our life, objectively weighed the pros and cons of our prospective life partner, and made a rational and informed choice. Not many. Because we're using emotion to make decisions.

Emotions Trump Facts

Of course, it's not just our love life which is effected by choices stemming from emotional instinct. The UK is undergoing a messy divorce from the EU and while Donald Trump was originally dismissed by many as an object of ridicule, he is now in charge of the most powerful country on earth. 

Donald Trump is the perfect example of why facts are far less important than emotion when it comes to decision making. 

The fact that he is a privileged billionaire with close ties to Wall Street didn’t stop people believing he would be on their side against privileged Wall Street billionaires. The fact that he has been divorced, had numerous (alleged) affairs and admitted to sexual assault on TV didn’t stop evangelical Christians supporting him in large numbers. The fact that he has been bankrupt four times didn’t stop his supporters believing he was a successful businessman. 
The fact his Trump University was found to have tricked thousands of low-income Americans out of their life savings didn’t stop low-income voters believing he had their best interests at heart.

And there are many more facts that people point to as evidence that he is the least qualified person to ever hold the office. But Donald Trump is President.
Why? Were his supporters stupid? Did they really hate Hilary Clinton that much? 

Or was it that they preferred to ignore these inconvenient facts and instead focus on how he made them feel?
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Does he get to keep the house? 
(Picture: Politico) 
The reasons for Trumps success are still being hotly debated but one thing political analysts and psychologists agree on is that he successfully tapped into his supporters’ emotions. From his creation of an ‘us and them’ siege mentality to the manipulation of ‘fake news’ (first as a device working for him and then to dismiss his critics). 

Simplistic chants of ‘lock her up’, ‘drain the swamp’ and ‘build the wall’ gave his supporters enemies to attack and a sense of Agency – finally after years of politics being done ‘to them’ they could hit back at the establishment. 

Trump knows that when it comes to winning an argument, facts simply aren't good enough

That view is shared by Arron Banks, the co-founder and chief financier of the Leave.EU campaign. Mr Banks is a big admirer of The Donald and it was no coincidence that the Leave campaign used the same emotion based techniques to convince enough people that Britain would be better off in some sort of ‘friends with benefits’ relationship with Europe. 

The remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.

Image Caption

Aaron Banks

While the 'Remain' campaign flooded the TV channels with meticulously researched facts and well-reasoned arguments, Banks and the Leave campaign hit voters directly in the gut and made them feel like it was in a one-sided abusive relationship. Did it feel right that the UK was spending an unnecessary £350 million per week which could be poured into our failing health system? Hell no! Was it true? Of course not. 

The emotional message was that we as a country were being ripped off by the EU, that the UK was being treated as a second class nation and as a cash cow, and that we simply wouldn't stand for it any more. The truth of the statement was irrelevant. As Banks suspected, a powerful emotional message is worth more than mere facts. 

As humans (we're assuming you're human - if not, your secret is safe with us), our ancestors started out as a chain of self-replicating DNA before progressing through to single celled organisms, fish, creatures with legs and fur and then finally... us. 

Everything that makes us human has, or at some point in the deep evolutionary past has had a purpose. Something which helped our progenitors survive and thrive. And it's not just the basic body plan and overly large brains - it's our emotions too. 

Ever walk into a room and have a gut feeling that something is wrong? It's not rational, but then emotions rarely are, but they're probably right, and you have to make an instant decision. In the time it takes you to make a rational itemised and factual list of reasons why you should either stay or remain, the tiger which was hidden behind the aspidistra has already leaped from cover and is chomping on your innards. Listening to your gut instinct was the right choice. Rationalising was... not. 
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Listen to your gut instinct or be dinner
(Picture: Tambako the Jaguar / flickr) 
People pay attention to their gut instincts for a reason and politicians, marketers, and communications experts have learned to play on that. Maximising the emotional impact of not only what they say, but also the visuals they present, so that it appeals to your gut and just feels right, or if castigating a competitor, make them feel wrong.

So surely, assuming there are no tigers in the immediate vicinity, it would be rational and more productive to ignore your gut instinct when making important decisions, to attack each problem like Mr Spock and never allow emotion to cloud your judgement?

Unfortunately, not. Because without emotion, it's impossible to make good decisions. We know this thanks to an American railway worker with the wonderful name of Phineas Gage.

The Curious Case of Phineas Gage

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Phones Gage and his rod of iron
(Picture: Wikimedia commons) 
Phones Gage was working on construction of a US railway in 1848. As the result of an accident with explosives poor Phineas had a large iron rod driven through his skull, destroying most of his brain's left frontal lobe. Nasty.  

Gage was otherwise mostly unharmed, and seemed to be a normal rational human being, however the part of his brain which was destroyed was responsible for processing emotion. Gage was labelled as a psychopath and engaged in behaviours for which there was no rational or emotional explanation. If there was a choice, the post-accident Gage would always make the wrong one. With his inappropriate sexual behaviour, promiscuity, ludicrous gambling, inability to make ethical decisions, and lack of respect for social norms, he eventually found employment as a sideshow freak and died in 1860. 

Thanks to the unfortunate Phineas and subsequent studies Psychologists now believe that emotions are the 'dominant driver' in making the most important decisions in your life, and there is a conscious and unconscious drive towards minimising the negative emotions you feel and maximising the positive ones. 

 Now of course all politicians understand the need to connect emotionally with their voters while delivering solid policy proposals. Where Trump is different is that while he has a few policies from an objective point of view they are at best imprudent, and at worst, either illegal, impossible or beyond the remit of the president. But that doesn’t deter his followers because he has a highly effective strategy based on emotional appeal. 

So what lessons can business communicators learn from The Donald? 

Emotion in Action 

I’m not suggesting that you are in any way similar to Donald Trump. However, it's clear that his strategy of using emotions to connect with people is incredibly effective and like 'The Donald' you too can use people's emotional state to get that gut feeling of 'rightness' which ensures that your message hits home and is absorbed. 

Handy hint: You're not a politician, it's not OK to use outright lies and disparaging nicknames to get your point across, but there are some solid techniques you can use instead.
Get on side

One of the first thing Trump did was set himself up as the candidate angry voters could identify with. He understood voter anger with the way politicians are financed. A presidential campaign of any kind costs tens of millions of dollars at the very least, and it's estimated that in the current campaign, the candidates could have spent a combined $10 billion. The bulk of that money is donated by big business and interest groups.  

By announcing that he would not be accepting donations from any corporation except his own Trump rose above the common crowd of politicians as seemingly a force of incorruptible virtue. He set himself up as an anti-establishment figure and despite his rather privileged life - he presented himself as an outsider on the side of millions of disaffected voters.

Having established this connection, any criticism of him by political opponents or the media were seen by supporters as confirmation that the establishment were afraid of him and only made their connection with him greater.
You are right

To paraphrase Nietzsche (and who hasn’t) most people don’t necessarily want the truth they just want reassurance that what they already believe is the truth. Trumps views on immigrants, Muslims and women are shocking to many but a ‘breath of fresh air’ to those who privately held those views or were easily persuaded to them.

If you can find a common set of beliefs that your audience share you can use those in your communication to make them feel good about themselves – and who isn’t going to feel more warmly towards someone or something that make us feel good about ourselves?
Keep it simple

Running a country is a pretty complex business but psychologists know the human mind prefers simplicity. If we can easily understand something we’re more likely to believe it is true. So while immigration, terrorism, economics and international relations are incredibly complex – ‘build a wall’, ‘deport immigrants’, ‘ban Muslims’ and potentially ‘withdraw from NATO’ are easy to grasp and so, for many, intuitively feel like they are right.
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Wait, what was that you said about the trade deficit?  
(Picture: Blondinrikard Fröberg/Flickr) 
Let me tell you a story
Stories too, are an essential tool. which is one reason Trump (along with many other politicians) loves to tell stories/recount events. You can relate to a character as part of a narrative far better than as a bare list of facts about a person. 

Stories help us see how they relate to or fit in with your own narrative, and that is what makes people connect. You want to hear their story. The fact that you're seeing it and hearing it told makes the story that much more powerful. 'Saving Private Ryan' did more to convey the horrors of WWII than any bare list of facts ever could.
Use emotive language

There is huge potential to influence people through the words you choose. Politicians, journalists and scriptwriters instinctively use words that do much more than convey information and meaning. Choosing words that carry emotional weight influence people’s opinions of the facts.

Read any news story and you’ll see this in practice. A police factual report of an incident might read “The bystander received a cut to his face when the other man tripped and fell while holding a beer glass” A journalist would tell us “The innocent bystander had his face shredded with glass when the drunken idiot lost control” (Bystanders are almost always ‘innocent’).

In the first account we have sympathy for the injured man but reading the second account we feel much more – we flinch at the idea of having our face shredded and feel angry towards the man who recklessly endangered others. 

You should be using emotive language in your communications. Saying a traditional working practice is no longer effective is a good description but calling it ‘damaging’ or ‘obsolete’ gives it much more emotional impact.
Engage the senses

Sensory input is the key to triggering emotions. Unless you're able to give your audience soft toys to hold or hand out hot, freshly baked bread, it's difficult to stimulate taste, smell, and touch in a business setting – but that still leaves you with two of the most powerful senses to play with – sound and vision. (Don’t you wonder sometimes about sound and vision?)

Okay, I planted an earworm. If you know and like Bowie’s ‘Sound and Vision’ the chances are it momentarily popped into your head. And possibly even triggered a remembered emotion of some sort.

You see as soon as music hits your eardrum, it stimulates spinal motor neurons and vestibular, visceral systems and whether you want it to or not, music makes you feel something. You can feel miserable, overjoyed, or empowered, and you have absolutely no control over it. Have a look at this video and then read the comments.

The same goes for voices. We’ve all know the expression ‘it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it’. Politicians know the tone of voice can have a profound effect on an audience’s emotional response to what they’re saying. If you want to get some great tips on how to use your voice to better connect with people check out this great Ted Talk.

We are surrounded by images and we know how effective they can be. Powerful visuals evoke strong emotions and lead to deeper engagement. Choosing the right images is one of the most powerful ways to get your audience to experience an emotional connection with your message.

This means thinking beyond the standard images of business people working on laptops. Think about what emotion you want to generate at each point in your presentation (fear of missing out, warm reassurance, or whatever) and use an image that invokes that feeling. 

Of course you need to tailor your presentation for your audience but whoever they are I think it’s fair to say even the most conservative audience is going to experience much emotion looking at clichéd images of corporate people doing corporate things.
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Feeling insecure, Dave was unsure how the latest reorganisation would effect him  
(Picture: Suzanne Nilsson/Flickr) 

Shake it up a bit. Use something unexpected. Your audience will feel more and they’ll remember more. If you want more ideas and help deciding on the best visuals for your next presentation check out our guide to choosing images. 

Okay, as you’ll have gathered by now the techniques outlined out in this article are not by any means unique to Donald Trump - indeed we use them when we produce videos and supporting material for our clients. I chose Donald Trump as a way in to this subject because I know many people feel strongly (one way or the other) when they see the name Donald Trump and as a result you are more likely to have your curiosity raised and read the article! 

So yes, it’s a shameless exploitation of your emotions. But, as a result, I’ve had the opportunity to connect with you and hopefully you’ve now got a better understanding of why and how to engage your audience’s emotions. And why I say if you want to be a successful communicator you should be more like Donald Trump. 



Paul Brannigan

Paul is the founder and creative director of Nudj. He has many years experience working in business video and television. He is a Bafta nominated writer and director with a passion for psychology. He is also a trained hypnotist and always keeps a fob watch handy - you have been warned!