The Potent Simplicity of Donald Trump

As election year 2016 rolls along in the United States, we can no longer ignore the very real possibility that Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee for President. I did not think that American politics could get much more bizarre, but this election cycle has proven me wrong.

As Trump’s support grows and as the Republican establishment’s conniptions over his popularity become more violent, it occurred to me that I have been remiss in not taking a closer look at his speaking style on this blog. So I am rectifying the situation.

Trump knows how to captivate his base

Even if you share my opinion that many of Trump’s statements are repugnant, juvenile or just plain incoherent, there is no denying his ability to captivate and persuade a large segment of the population. There is much that could be said about Donald Trump’s speaking style but in this post I want to focus on one thing that he does very effectively whenever he speaks in public.

In fact, Trump himself gave away his secret at a 30 December 2015 speech in Hilton Head, South Carolina. You need only watch one minute of the speech and the video below will start and end at the operative moments.

Did you catch Trump’s secret? Here’s the relevant text from his speech.

I used to use the word incompetent. Now I just call them stupid. I went to an Ivy League school. I’m very highly educated. I know words, I have the best words … but there is no better word than stupid. Right?

Now, many people will roll their eyes and have a bit of a chuckle at this proclamation. I did. But the point that Trump makes is spot on. Simple words are effective. Don’t take my word for it. Let’s consult one of the greatest writers of the 20th century in the English language, Ernest Hemingway.

The power of simplicity

Hemingway got into a fairly high profile row with fellow author, William Faulkner. When Faulkner was visiting the University of Mississippi in 1947, he answered a number of questions from students. At one point he said this of Hemingway: “He has no courage, has never crawled out on a limb. He has never been known to use a word that might cause the reader to check with a dictionary to see if it is properly used.”

According to A. E. Hotchner, a friend of Hemingway who wrote the memoir Papa Hemingway, when told of Faulkner’s comments, Hemingway responded:

Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.

Or, given that we are talking about Donald Trump and the fight for the American Presidency, let’s take a political figure and one of the most compelling speakers of the 20th century, Winston Churchill. Here’s his advice:

Broadly speaking, the short words are best, and the old words best of all.

Donald Trump
“I know words, I have the best words.”

Do you see a pattern here? He might not be eloquent—in fact, he is far from it—but Donald Trump is keeping very good company when it comes to his speaking strategy. And it is paying off. He is connecting with audiences across the country. Just look at the states that he has won thus far in the Republican primaries and caucuses. From Massachusetts to South Carolina to Arkansas to Nevada, Trump is winning people over.

Even those who are virulently anti-Trump pick up on the simplicity of his language, if in a denigrating way. Take this recent editorial from Salon with not-so-subtle title, America, you’re stupid: Donald Trump’s political triumph makes it official—we’re a nation of idiots. It notes how, with a relatively limited vocabulary, Trump has been able to convince (bamboozle) many people.

I hate to have to say it, but the conclusion stares us in the face: We’re a stupid country, full of loud, illiterate and credulous people. Trump has marched straight to the nomination without offering anything like a platform or a plan. With a vocabulary of roughly a dozen words – wall, Mexicans, low-energy, loser, Muslims, stupid, China, negotiate, deals, America, great, again – he’s bamboozled millions of Americans. And it’s not just splenetic conservatives supporting Trump or your garden-variety bigots (although that’s the center of his coalition), it’s also independents, pro-choice Republicans, and a subset of Reagan Democrats. [Emphasis added.]

Simplicity works

I have stressed the importance of simplicity when speaking in public numerous times in this blog. In their classic book, Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath list simplicity as one of the key elements of a sticky message. Great minds from Frédéric Chopin to Bruce Lee have recognized the power of simplicity. And Leonardo da Vinci still said it best:

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

In the video essay below, Evan Puschak (a.k.a “The Nerdwriter”) offers some interesting insights on Trump’s answer to a question about his proposal to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the United States. Admittedly, he is only parsing one sentence, but his analysis is excellent and applicable to many of Trump’s statements. Although it is clear that Puschak has no great love for Donald Trump, the video is, on the whole, fairly unbiased.

Puschak looks at several aspects of Trump’s speaking style. Pay particular attention to what he says about the simplicity of the words that Trump uses.

Simplicity is powerful and memorable. Simplicity works. And Donald Trump is making it work for his campaign.

Of course, simple words alone have not contributed to Trump’s success; it is more complicated than that. But there is no doubt that Trump’s simple (and simplistic) words is a key weapon in his arsenal when it comes to persuading people.

Photo courtesy of Michael Vadon / Flickr

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  1. Well, isn’t simplicity the chief and common theme with populists?

    Certainly they have to speak in a manner that many people will understand, even those simple of mind and poor in education. But it’s interesting that you pick examples like Churchill only days after Trump got baited into retweeting a quote from Mussolini. So whether Trump is really that good at keeping company is debatable. There are more contemporaries of Churchill that could whip the masses into a frenzy with their speeches. But their use of their oratory talent only led their nations into utter destruction.

    1. Thanks for the comment. You are absolutely correct. That’s why compelling oratory can be a great thing (think Martin Luther King) or a very bad thing (think Adolf Hitler). I knew of the Mussolini quote but chose Churchill because of the latter’s explicit recognition of the power of simple words. Intentionally or not, Trump is in good company on this point.

      1. The thing with demagogues is, of course, that they do not just simplify the language, they simplify the issues as well, promising simple solutions to complex problems. And Trump with his ideas follows that to a T.

        1. No question about that. When I was drafting the post, I made a conscious decision to limit it to one narrow aspect of his speaking and it still ended up being a long post. An analysis of the substance (or lack of it) would run much longer. And the vagueness of many of his “policies” is unsettling to say the least.

  2. Very good analysis, John. It’s a distasteful exercise for me to admire anything about Trump, and indeed, I wonder if this guy has a demagogue’s playbook that encourages him to favor simplicity, or if that’s “all he got.” This aside, your point – bolstered by some good stuff from other writers, and the nerdwriter vid – is clear, and compelling.
    Clearly, neither Trump’s policies nor his manner of speaking appeals to me, yet, in some respects, I understand his appeal. If you look past his lack of command of the issues and lack of any kind of compassion or veracity, he is a plain speaker – à la at least one (if not both) of the Bushes, and Reagan. The difference is that he is much more mean-spirited and condescending than any of his GOP predecessors. (Perhaps, only Palin rivaled him in this department.)

    Lastly, for now, in the first clip, Trump is basically telling his own supporters, “I’m smarter than you, but let me dumb it down for your benefit.” It’s amazing, and amazingly galling, that this works. If Trump were a toilet paper salesman, and people were buying, I wouldn’t mind so much, but his simple (and demeaningly simplistic) message is part of a run for the most powerful office in the land. Scary.

    1. Thanks, Matt. Great comment.

      When you look at the substance of what he says, his popularity in the polls becomes even more mystifying. But I think that’s part of it as well – most people don’t look at the substance. Most people get caught up in emotions and when someone can tap into those emotions, they are hooked. A lot of people are angry at government regardless of the party and Trump appeals to them as an “outsider” who is not beholden to big interests in Washington. They like his swagger and his brashness; it gives them, vicariously, a sense of control over the situation.

      And no, Trump is not selling toilet paper. In fact, he is selling the most important thing he has ever sold – himself. And he’s doing a good job.

  3. Mr. Trump would certainly be a challenge for his speech evaluator. How do you tell someone who has just called people names, and are not civil, that they can’t do that in Toastmasters.

  4. “Simplicity is powerful; simplicity is memorable; simplicity works. And Donald Trump is making it work for his campaign.”

    This is all absolutely true. An overly verbose presentation using too many ‘ten-dollar words’ can suffocate the message. A well placed gem of a word among simplicity can make much more of an impression.

    But simplicity all the time? I dunno. I love a simple meal of good cheese and bread, but I wouldn’t want to go without finer cuisine from time to time. Hemingway is terrific – but so is Shakespeare. And few would accuse him of simplicity.

    I think simplicity of words can disguise complexity of purpose as well as highlight it; I think reaching for elegance and eloquence can elevate the speaker and the audience alike.

    That a portion of the American electorate is responding well to Trump right now could mean that he is speaking at their level – it could also mean that there is a genuine lack of better alternatives who can truly inspire.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Paula. I share your tastes. I love simple writing but I enjoy challenging stuff as well. I like a clean, coherent speech but I want flashes or rhetorical brilliance as well. They just have to be in the right proportion.

      Without question, simplicity can hide complexity of purpose. Just look at any demagogue in history who was a great speaker. While elegance and eloquence can elevate speaker and audience alike, Trump does not want to do that. He is very happy with people where they are because he can tap into base emotion without having them think more deeply about the issues. It’s the same phenomenon that George W. Bush used to whip up support for the invasion of Iraq when Iraq had nothing to do whatsoever with 9/11.

      But here’s the catch – and this is the frightening thing – notwithstanding Trump’s recently professed love for the poorly educated, his supporters are not all poorly educated. In fact, he is connecting with people across a broad social spectrum. Here’s one post on the subject but there are several others. The other Republican candidates are inspiring some people, but not on the scale that Trump is.

  5. Reblogged this on La crise, quelle crise ? and commented:

    Thank you for this insightful post. Actually, political speeches have been analyzed to find what makes some successful and other less, and it always comes around the simplicity of the words, the length of the sentences and the use of repetition.

    Whether we like Trump or not, he genuinely understands the word demagogy and how to explain complex problems through simple words. And I think we can use these techniques when we want to have a maximum impact with a large audience.
    Of course, if the audience is only composed of scholars, it will backfire, but in a vast majority of the cases, it will work tremendously right. We should never underestimate the power of simplicity.

    1. Thank you for the comment and reblog, Marc. I agree that even if we don’t like what Trump is saying, there is no denying his impact. And I think it important to study effective speakers even if we disagree with them and, indeed, because we disagree with them.

      But concerning your comment about how this would backfire with an audience of scholars, I agree with you if we are talking about elite scholars. But when it comes to the generally well educated, Trump is making inroads there as well. You might find this post interesting.

  6. Donald Trump’s campaign gives us a case study on the power of oratory as a tool of persuasion. This power is hugely underestimated and not factored into sensible analysis adequately.

    Thank you John for at least bringing this (what’s really going on here?) into the conversation. We love to think we are rational deciders, but there is far more going on beneath this illusion.

    Check out this analysis of the Donald Trump phenomenon from Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert.

    It forces one to reflect differently and reevaluate with an open mind. Or perhaps with (zen concept) a beginners mind. (In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.)
    And here is a “big picture analysis” that may in years to come be one of the best explanations of why and how this phenomenon arose.

    It ends with this:

    Here is a much simpler explanation for Donald Trump: Republicans have fed the country ideas about decline, betrayal and treason. They have encouraged the forces of anti-intellectualism, obstructionism and populism. They have flirted with bigotry and racism. Trump merely chose to unashamedly embrace all of it, saying plainly what they were hinting at for years. In doing so, he hit a jackpot.

    The problem is not that Republican leaders should have begun to condemn Trump last year. It is that they should have condemned the ideas and tactics that led to his rise when they began to flourish 20 years ago.

    Good luck John. Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to write such a long comment, Rashid. I appreciate your sharing the links and I will read them with interest. The final paragraph of the Washington Post article is poignant. And it makes a lot of sense. Thanks for contributing to the conversation.

  7. Very interesting discussion John. I especially like the link to Evan Puschak’s analysis. My favorite comment on Trump’s simplicity of language comes from John Oliver: “Oh please. Literally, the biggest word in the sentence, ‘I have the best words,’ is the word ‘words.’”

    I don’t think Trump is consciously manipulating his language or syntax – it’s just his normal way of talking. And I think that gets to a second related point. He is a master communicator because he speaks very conversationally. People hear him sound like a “normal” person (well not normal in other ways) but normal like somebody sounding off in a bar. Most politicians sound unnaturally crafted. Delivering with a conversational style gives speakers authenticity and credibility – whether it’s merited or not.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Bob. I follow John Oliver all the time and had seen his piece on Trump. It’s brilliant.

      I agree that Trump is speaking in his natural style. He must have plenty of aides who work with him on his major speeches, but his style is pretty much as I remember it when I started to hear him speak years ago as a businessman and Reality TV show guy. He has honed this style in the business trenches. And yes, it translates into him sounding raw and unscripted and noticeably different from most politicians. Combine that with people’s discontent with, and mistrust of, government and you have a “potent” mix.

  8. Moved from my FaceBook response:

    Lessons I’ve learned:

    * You don’t have to respect someone to learn from them
    * Your audience doesn’t have to be “everyone” to be effective
    * If you repeat yourself and they can’t prove you wrong, you build credibility with your audience (i.e. I’m the best negotiator, I’m a winner, etc.)
    * Just giving your audience what they want never backfires (this lesson may not be complete)
    * If your audience feels you can solve their problem, they’ll do just about anything to get that solution – and your audience will grow
    * Your explanation just needs some plausibility, not total believability, to be effective (i.e. David Duke, I’m flexible, The Wall, etc.)
    * Establish credibility before you meet your audience

    1. Thanks, Rob. I appreciate your moving the comment here and for contributing to a good discussion over at the Toastmasters International Facebook page. I know that it is not easy to discuss a politician’s speaking style without getting into the politics, but when people make the effort, it is a very instructive exercise. Thanks for helping move the conversation forward.

      People are welcome to share their thoughts over on Facebook. However – and this important – comments must be restricted to a discussion of speaking style. If you get into the politics, your comment will be deleted. There are plenty of other places on the Interweb to discuss politics.

  9. This article is excellent.

    I would add, that another reason to learn (understand the power of communication) this is to be able to recognize when you are being persuaded by the power of rhetoric / rhetorical devices / storytelling prowess etc.; rather than a reasonable / well thought through / well constructed argument.

    I’ll confess that I feel both a specially respect, and a special caution, when in the presence of a powerful communicator.

    I read this HBR article regularly to remind myself to remain rational:

    Successful stories generate powerful feelings, and strong feelings act as a solvent on our logic and our skepticism. To put it positively, good stories—fictional or not—make us more open minded. To put it negatively, they make us a lot more gullible.

    This is the reason, as explained by the science journalist Maria Konnikova in her book The Confidence Game, why a powerful, emotion-drenched story is at the heart of every con job. And it’s also the reason that academic journals exclude storytelling technique from scientific reports.  Scientists understand that storytelling dials up emotion and dials back rationality, clouding objective analysis.

    1. Great points, Rashid and I look forward to reading the HBR article. Yes, the downside of great oratory is that, if the speaker’s motives are malevolent, his or her words can have negative consequences, sometimes dramatically so. Just look at what happened with Hitler. An amazing orator with the power to move millions with his words. Unfortunately, we all know the terrible consequences.

    2. Actually, the fundamental format of a scientific publication is a narrative one – it starts with a motivating grievance, it continues describing what “trials” were undergone to overcome that grievance, then describes the observations that were made and concludes with a “moral” of the story by discussing the meaning of those observations vis-a-vis the grievance. Narrative structure doesn’t necessarily imply either exaggeration, distortion or dishonesty, and it is a key tool to make content more digestible and memorable. It binds audience attention and helps getting the point across, and that’s an important part of scientific communication. Randy Olson, a former marine biology professor who became a film maker has written several books on the issue.

      Stories don’t have to be fairy tales or tall tales. They can also be the story of a scientist who witnessed the outbreak of Ebola first-hand and was motivated by it to find a new treatment, describes what he did to achieve that goal, what the outcome of his efforts was and what that means for Ebola treatment. Communicating scientific results is a critical part of science. It helps spread new knowledge, kickstarts new developments and reduces reproduction of known results to a rational level that confirms the results but doesn’t waste everyone’s time, money and effort. To do this, communication needs to be effective, and narrative elements help in that.

      As for “objective analysis”, it would go too far to explain how theory of knowledge suggests that’s an illusion in itself. Science has peer review to verify whether someone’s analysis is convincing. That inter-subjective verification is generally good enough.

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John delivered a keynote address about the importance of public speaking to 80 senior members of Gore’s Medical Device Europe team at an important sales event. He was informative, engaging and inspirational. Everyone was motivated to improve their public speaking skills. Following his keynote, John has led public speaking workshops for Gore in Barcelona and Munich. He is an outstanding speaker who thinks carefully about the needs of his audience well before he steps on stage.

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