I promised months ago to show you how this year’s presidential candidates are trying to manipulate you. Let’s quickly dissect some highlights of the 2016 Republican National Convention.
My comments below are based strictly on the principles of psychological influence that the candidates employ. This is not a political blog, and while I do have strong opinions, I am not advocating for any specific candidate on this blog. I believe we can learn from all sides of the argument, and as long as you make an informed, honest decision, I respect your voting choices even if they disagree with mine.
Trump’s acceptance speech was one of the weakest I’ve ever heard him give. It’s clear to me that Trump did not write much of his speech. I know this because many of what are typically Trump’s strengths were absent from the speech.
Clearly Trump made a calculation that he thought it was more important to look and sound more like a typical presidential candidate rather than accentuate his individuality.
Only time will tell if that was the right move. In the interest of time and space, I will not address what Trump did poorly. So that we can all learn to be better communicators and better presenters let’s discuss a few things Trump did effectively.
There has been much discussion in the media about Ted Cruz’s refusal to endorse Trump. Everybody has an opinion about whether it was the right move.
You know from my previous analysis of Trump that I do not personally support his candidacy. However, I do believe he is a very skilled persuader and very educated in psychological manipulation. He proved this again by the way he handled Cruz.
Trump seems to be the only one in the political arena who understands that Cruz’s non-endorsement helps him. Trump has admitted that he knew in advance that Cruz would not endorse, and that he read the text of the Speech in advance. He knew he could use it in his favor!
Instead of trying to get Cruz off the stage, Trump supporters were encouraged to boo and chant during Cruz’s speech. Of course, there is no public proof that Trump instigated this directly, but delegates have admitted that there were Trump reps on the floor encouraging it. I have no doubt that Trump created this scene on purpose. As further proof, Trump entered the hall before Cruz was done speaking, diverting the attention away from Cruz in the middle of Cruz’s speech.
The video above right is cued to the point where many in the audience boo and chant the remainder of the speech. Trump then enters the back of the arena. What you cant see in the video is that Trumps entrance caused everyone to turn there head toward him and away from Cruz, creating the appearance of unanimity.
Why would Trump do this? Because a high percentage of Republican voters were still undecided about supporting him.
Trump knows something no one else seems to understand–the best way to get people off the fence is through opposition!
By allowing Cruz to publicly speak against him, Trump encouraged opposition. Opposition forces fence sitters to choose sides. To make sure they choose his side, Trump created the impression of unanimity in the hall by instigating the boos and interrupting with his entrance.
Clearly Trump also understands, that in an emotional moment, usually someone falling off the fence will subconsciously try to fall to the side of the majority!
Trump is a manipulative genius!
Was the delegate hall unanimous? Of course not, but by placing his most faithful delegates in the front of the hall close to the camera and microphone, it appears like unanimity on TV, and it coerces undecided voters and those with divided loyalty to choose sides.
I do not support Trump’s methods. I believe they are underhanded and manipulative, but we can still learn from it.
Takeaway: Reveal the argument against yourself, or allow your opposition to make their case. This forces fence-sitters to choose sides. As long as you do the next step of juxtaposing the opposition against your own strength, you are pushing listeners off the fence and in your direction.
Another of Trump’s strengths is his complete confidence with which he phrases his message. Most speakers say phrases such as “I think” or “I believe.” Trump confidently declares “You will!”
Bernie Sanders – he never had a chance. But his supporters will join our movement …
Few politicians have the audacity to say it with such certainty, because they know they will look presumptuous. Trump doesn’t look presumptuous, he says everything as if he really believes it.
Millions of Democrats will join our movement …
Takeaway: Most listeners don’t want to think very hard, and if you’re confident in what you speak, more often than not they’ll just believe you.
Lots of talking heads on TV have criticized Trump for being so negative. He spent most of his speech outlining how bad Hillary is, how bad politicians are, how corrupt the system is, how much people suffer, how weak the nation feels, how bad the economy is, how bad our international agreements are, etc.
Despite what people say, this is not a mistake!
It’s simple psychology. People relate to negative easier than they relate to positive. You may not like the way negativity feels, but if you want people to agree with you, it’s a lot easier to find negative emotions that you have in common rather than something positive that you have in common. Negative emotions are just that much more memorable and impressive.
I hate the flu. Don’t you hate that nauseous feeling just before you throw up?
That’s a negative statement and I guarantee you can relate to it. Now I will do my best to give you a positive one:
I love not being sick. Don’t you love having the energy to do what you want?
Do you see how weak that positive statement feels? What am I going to say? Energy? Health? Time? No matter which positive part of being “not sick” that I choose, it’s just not as emotionally moving as talking about the feeling of vomit.
Even more, by talking about how bad America is first, it reinforces his message of “making America great again.” The juxtaposition of bad before the good, makes the good look better.
Takeaway: Bond with your audience on both positive and negative–but negative emotions are easier.
Strive for Unanimity
It’s been rightly pointed out, that unlike most Republican presidential nomination acceptance speeches, Trump barely mentioned social issues.
He never said the word “gay.” He never said the word “abortion.” He never said the word “marriage” or “religion” or “Christian.”
Why? Because he knows that those are divisive issues. Did he make some divisive statements? Yes, but only about things that he calculated many Democrats would agree with.
Just saying the word “gay” or “Jesus” instantly divides listeners into opposing teams. Whereas expressing regret about a “rigged political system” creates a new team that includes both Republicans and Democrats.
His only mention of LGBTQ was in the context of victimization as a result of terrorism, not as a matter of social policy. That is a unifying reframing on which Republicans and Democrats agree.
Takeaway: Avoid drawing a line in the sand that forces the listener to choose sides. Strive for unanimity!
Isn’t this the opposite of what I said above? Yes. Trump used division with Cruz on purpose and unity with Sanders supporters on purpose. The difference is that the division was with people in his own Republican in-group. Republicans strongest loyalties are anti-democrat, so he knows that that fallback for most Republicans is a vote for a Republican–Trump.
On the other hand, if he used abortion or gay marriage, it would be divisive to his out-group, and the fallback for Democrats would be a vote for a Democrat.
He’s trying to crate a new group of “anti-establishment Americans” that unites Democrats and Republicans alike. Division works when the fallback is in your favor. Unity works when the fallback is in the other team’s favor.
The Appearance of Authenticity
It was a risk for Trump to follow a teleprompter and read a speech obviously written by someone else. It was a risk, because his personal idiosyncrasies are his strengths. Following a script stifles some of that strength.
How did he compensate? He used one of his greatest strengths: reactions.
Trump gave the longest acceptance speech in modern times. It wasn’t long because the speech was written long, but because he elaborated and reacted beyond the written text.
This is just one more proof that Trump didn’t write it, because the writer didn’t leave time for Trump’s reactions.
After almost every point, Trump would react to his own statement. He would either repeat the key words, or inject his own commentary:
Believe me. And I have to say, as a Republican, it is so nice to hear you cheering.
Interjections like “believe me” or “we’re going to win” or “by the way” or rephrasing, or confirmatory questions were ubiquitous.
I searched online to see if I could compare Trump’s actual words to his text. Fortunately someone has already done the hard work for me: Where Donald Trump Went Off Script
This technique of reacting to yourself is one of the techniques in my SpeechDeck public speaking skills system. It is a VERY powerful technique because either: 1) It IS authentic or 2) It creates the illusion of authenticity. Reactions rarely fails because it’s hard for most people to by completely phony spontaneously.
Great lies take a lot more planning. A reaction is by definition immediate and almost always appears sincere even if its not polished — in fact the ineloquence and imperfection of a reaction make it appear even more authentically sincere.
If I’m being honest, it’s really hard for lots of presenters and speakers to include spontaneous interjections. For example, it will be nearly impossible for Hillary to do so next week at her convention! Hillary is not good at this, and the end result will be that whether you like him or not, Trump will appear more authentic. Hillary will try a different technique to appear authentic.
Takeaway: Interject personal commentary and personal reactions. This is a great way to interject authenticity.
If you have read my blog, you know that I predicted months ago that Donald Trump will win the presidency. Trump will use his skills of psychological influence to win. I’ve studied persuasion for years, and Trump clearly knows at least as much as I do about it. More importantly, Trump doesn’t just KNOW what to do, he actual DOES IT.
Strangely, Trump’s speech was actually weaker than usual. In this case he did not employ all of the manipulative techniques that I have chronicled in the past and that I know he is capable of. He clearly decided to take a more conventional approach in order to appear more presidential.
Having said that, I must disclose that personally I will not vote for Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton. While I know enough about psychology to recognize their deliberate attempts at manipulating the public, I cannot in good conscience vote for someone I believe is using his or her talents in an unethical way. I believe both Trump and Hillary are morally unfit for office.
Stay tuned next week for my review of Hillary Clinton and the Democrats.