As professionals who communicate, let’s talk about the elephant in the room.
As of January 20, 2017, Donald Trump is the 45th president of the United States, a position that used to carry the unofficial title of Leader of the Free World. We’ll see how that part turns out.
Trump seems to break nearly every rule of the English language, sometimes “bigly”. He is so incoherent he can contradict himself several times in less than 140 characters. During the US election campaign he was ridiculed as a communication disaster, but today he is President. Maybe he got a little help from his friends and maybe he didn’t, but there’s no denying that he won the hearts of millions of Americans, including many traditional rust-belt Democrats, strategically taking the Electoral College.
So does this mean Trump overturned all the principles of effective communication? No, on the contrary, Donald Trump actually proved three key rules of powerful communication, and we’d all do well to pay attention.
First, he understood that our gut responds far more powerfully than our intellect. Without agreeing or disagreeing with McLean’s and Sagan’s “lizard brain” hypothesis, we can say safely that there is a part of us which communicates at a primal level, our visceral “fight or flight” instinct. All of us respond to these signals. Some of us give them sober second thought before reacting. Most don’t.
Second, he kept his message simple. Everything was a variation on the theme “Make America Great Again”. Do you remember Hillary’s slogan? Of course you don’t.
Third, he knew how to keep our attention, all the time. He owned the headlines. Did Hillary? No. Did Bernie? Yes, but that’s for another discussion.
But the story is not over. Donald Trump makes three mistakes which will surely bring him down. The principles of communication are eons old, and you don’t trifle with them. Follow them and they will reward you, flaunt them and they will ruin you.
His first mistake is that he doesn’t listen. All great communicators listen. The Gipper listened. You may think you don't need to listen because you are smarter than the rest of the world, but in the grand scheme of things the rest of the world will not agree with you. There is a God, but his name is not Donald.
His second communication mistake is related to the first, and it is that he does not show respect. When someone speaks to us without respect, we resist the content of their message, even if we are terrified of them. We may respond outwardly as necessary to avoid being hurt, but we will not let them into our hearts. Ultimately, if a tyrant does not own our hearts, he will fall.
The third failed pillar of communication is coherence. Undoubtedly Donald is brilliant, but because he lacks respect and moral compass, it doesn’t matter to him what he says. As a result, he just spews a stream of sales barf. He doesn’t make sense because he's not about logic. He’s not trying to convey sense, he’s trying to sell. His language is the verbal equivalent of a shell game-- no matter how hard you try to follow, everything is moving so quickly that you’re just bedazzled. He’s not trying to tell you, he’s trying to sell you. He’s the circus barker, the snake oil salesman.
What does all this mean? It means that unless he can change the rules in time to save himself, Trump will ultimately fail. Provided that America remains a democracy with a free press and the rule of law, his failure to listen, to show respect and to speak coherently will erode his base, one disgruntled American at a time, until the day comes when the crowd agrees that the emperor has no clothes. Then, in the old American tradition, he will be tarred, feathered and run out of town on a rail, and nobody will mourn.
If I’m wrong about the democracy, free press and rule of law part, God help us all.
But I don't think I'm wrong. I believe the rules of communication are immutable, even if the results may take some time.
Norman Bowley is a communicator by passion, a lawyer and educator by profession. Thirty-six years of legal practice after ten years as an educator have equipped Norm to teach professionals how to communicate effectively and with power.