Donald Trump used four persuasion principles to captivate his audience, and win the election. He used these principles in plain sight, yet most people missed them. In this article, I’ll explain them to you, and I’ll show you how you can use these four principles to improve your influence and sales skills.
Briefly: I am a business owner and copywriter. My business sells self-development and dating advice to men, and my copy has generated over twenty million dollars in sales. If you’d like to learn more about my business, I’ll provide links later.
I’m about to release a course about copywriting: how to turn words into influence, sales and money. It’s taken me over a year to produce, and during that time, I watched the Donald make use of the techniques and principles that I teach in the course.
Warning: adult language, and potentially offensive thoughts lie ahead. Influence starts when you enter the mind of your prospect to explore its dark, dirty corners. This allows you to empathize with, and lead, your prospect – something that Trump did masterfully.
If you refuse to see the darkness in your prospect – if you look at it with scorn or derision – then you cannot effectively empathize, and you cannot lead your prospect into the light.
The examples provided below are just that – examples. Some Trump voters have thoughts like these, and others do not. I have personally had some of these thoughts, but not others. Let’s dive in:
Principle 1: Deeply Understand Your Prospect’s Problems and Pain
We’re all fucked up in some way. If you want to influence someone, you have to understand the specific problems they face. And you have to be able to put words to their pain.
Before I ever write a word of copy, I spend days or weeks building a psychological profile of my prospects. Sometimes, I will build multiple prospect profiles, to represent different types of prospects. I will read what they’re writing on message boards and in comments. I’ll send them surveys, and get on the phone with them.
Here are four (out of eleven) elements of that my Prospect Profile, with thoughts that a Trump voter may have. Again, I must caveat that these are examples, and do not represent the thoughts or beliefs of all Trump voters.
- What Are The Thoughts Keeping The Prospect Awake At Night? This answer is delivered in first-person, stream of consciousness as in “God, I’m such a failure, how am I gonna pay the mortgage next month? Fucking Chinese taking all our jobs, how am I supposed to compete with some asshole in Quingdong or who the fuck knows where. What would Dad say about this bullshit… about my life?”
- What Are The Prospect’s Irrational Hopes? This answer should look past the polite bullshit that people say when they feel judged, and deep into their selfish reptile brain. That’s where emotion lives. Again, this should be delivered in first-person, stream of consciousness. “Can’t we just keep all the Muslims out of this country? They come over here with their head scarves and weird language and fucked up beliefs and they bomb us.”
- What Is The Prospect’s Real Problem? This answer is a real, unvarnished look at the problem your prospect faces. “The U.S. has been led by elite, politically-correct globalists. Their policies have harmed many Americans, and their tone-deaf leadership has left many Americans behind.”
- What Are The Second-Order Consequences of That Problem? This is a powerful question. It allows you to stir up the pot of frustration and negative emotions. This amplifies the prospect’s recognition of their pain, and it creates empathy and trust in you. “People are feeling low, they’re feeling bad. They’re dropping out, they’re on drugs. They feel judged… like they’re bad people for loving our country and wanting to protect it. They feel resented for holding onto their beliefs, and angry that this land of freedom is becoming much less free for them. They’re working harder and earning less. They’re spending more of their money on lower-quality services, and they can’t afford the same quality of life they could ten years ago.”
Trump had a remarkable grasp of the problems and pain of his prospects. He voiced the problems again and again, and stirred up the pot of negative emotions with vigor.
Some say Trump debased the national dialogue. I say that he surfaced the monologue which already existed in the minds of many Americans who are in pain. This built the trust and empathy that allowed supporters to overlook his many flaws.
Principle 2: Name And Attack A Common Enemy
The most effective influencers seek to create discord, and to turn men against each other. Jesus once said “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
Everyone believes that someone else is holding them down: it could be a family member, a co-worker, a boss, a corporation, a politician, a government, even God or the Universe. If you want to influence someone, it is powerful to name and attack the Common Enemy on their behalf.
I’ve identified seven elements of a great Common Enemy. Here are three:
- The Common Enemy Is A Primary Cause Of Your Prospect’s Problems. The more that you define the Common Enemy: naming it, describing how it works, and why it does what it does – the more “cover” you will give to your prospect for his or her problems and pains.
- The Common Enemy Has A Weakness Which You Are Well-Positioned To Attack. When you attack the Common Enemy, your prospect will put his or her trust in you. You become a fearless leader, a redeemer who is willing to speak truth to power. Trump went one step further, ridiculing his Common Enemies. This was a power play.
- The Common Enemy Is Plausible. after hearing you name and describe the Common Enemy – your prospect has a thought that sounds like “ahhh, I SUSPECTED that was the problem, I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels this way” or “oh, so THAT’S been my problem this whole time!” It’s good if your Common Enemy is someone who the prospect already mistrusts, or if by naming the Common Enemy, you confirm your prospect’s biases. I’m reminded of one of my favorite Simpsons episodes:
Donald Trump named and identified many Common Enemies. Here are a few:
- Illegal Immigrants
- Radical Muslim Terrorists
- Fox News (early in the campaign)
- Weak and Ineffective Republicans
- The New York Times
- The Chinese
- Companies Who Outsource Jobs
- Barack Obama
- Hillary Clinton
Trump was merciless in how negatively he characterized these Common Enemies. He was clear about the problems they caused, confirming the beliefs and biases of his prospects. He attacked them with ferocity, positioning himself as a leader.
Notably, Trump never explicitly attacked African Americans or homosexuals, yet in the days after his election, many expressed feelings of hurt and fear. Some of these feelings can be attributed to Trump’s support for the Police, his nomination of Mike Pence, and the names he put forth for new Supreme Court Justices. But some of these feelings can be attributed to what I call “bias spillover.” When you attack people, you will make real enemies, including those who take up common cause or belief with your Common Enemies, or support those who support your Common Enemies.
Some say that Trump is a racist, xenophobic, sexist homophobe. I say that – whatever may be in his heart and head – he named and attacked some Common Enemies that his prospects truly feared and hated. This turned skeptics into fans, and fence-sitters into voters.
Principle 3: Project The Perfect World
Everyone wants a great future. If you want to influence someone, you have to promise to do more than end their pain. You have to promise to take them to the Perfect World.
In the Perfect World, everything is great. Your prospect’s problems and pain have been replaced with joy and pleasure. Your prospect’s selfish needs are satisfied, and his or her aspirational goals are achieved.
I ask myself nine questions when I’m building a Perfect World. Here are three of them:
- What Will No Longer Happen To Your Prospect, And What Will He Or She No Longer Feel? You must be explicit about the problems and pain that you will eliminate in the Perfect World. You’ve already identified these, so this answer is largely a reversal of your prospect’s current experiences. “You’ll stop feeling the frustration of having your hard-earned paycheck going to cover an illegal immigrant’s healthcare” or “You’ll get your job back, or even a better one, because in my economy, we’re going to need people with your skills. And you’ll no longer feel the shame of looking at your kids and knowing that you had to go into debt to afford their Christmas gifts.”
- What Are The Prospect’s Aspirational, Higher-Order Thoughts In the Perfect World? Much in the Perfect World – and many of the questions I ask – invoke selfish, reptile-brain thoughts. But once your prospect’s pain and problems go away, and once your prospect has reveled in the Perfect World a bit, he or she wants to reach higher. “You’ll finally have more time to spend with your family. You’ll be able to volunteer more. You’ll set a good example for your kids, and you’ll have the opportunity to leave this country better off because of your vote.”
- What’s a Happy Accident That Could Arise From The Solution Working Too Well? The Perfect World is unimaginably good. Not only is your prospect doing well, but he or she has a whole new set of “happy accident” problems to laugh about. When you promise that things are going to be this good, your prospect can’t help but dream. And laugh if you want at the following clip, but someone this confident in the future is influential:
Some say that Trump was full of shit. I say that he was full of hopes and dreams, and unabashed about expressing them.
Principle 4: Use Plain Language
The easier it is for your prospect to understand the meaning and implications of your words, the more you will influence him or her.
The opposite is also true: the more work it is for someone to understand you, the less effective you will be at influencing that person.
This was difficult for me. I love literature and big words, and I was a history major at University of Michigan, so I became an expert at writing endless paragraphs of meaningless bullshit. My professors loved it, and I felt smart.
I had to unlearn it all when I began to write copy. One of my exercises was to read the National Enquirer, and analyze the grammar, word choice, and sentence length in the articles.
Trump is a master of plain language. Let’s look at the recent speech he gave about Syria:
“On Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians using a deadly nerve agent.”
Powerful, simple adjectives: “Horrible” weapons. “Deadly” nerve agent. He’s keeping it real simple.
“Assad choked out the lives of innocent men, women and children.”
“Choked out the lives” is anything but abstract. It’s simple, vivid, visual language.
It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack.
People make fun of Trump for using phrases like “so many” and modifiers like “very”. Yet these are the same words that normal people use when they want to add emphasis to ideas.
There’s nothing fancy or flourishing about Trump’s language, and that’s why it connects. It is the simple, emotional delivery of ideas that resonate with some percentage of the voting public.
Some people say that Trump spoke like a sixth grader. I’d agree with them, and remind them that most Americans read at that same level.
On a recent trek in Peru, one of my fellow travelers asked me if I was one of those people who thought that Trump was a “secret genius.”
Even now, six months after his victory, I can’t answer that question. He’s not the idiot that his detractors make him out to be, but in my opinion, he’s done some idiotic things. And he’s certainly no role model.
Yet when it comes to influence and persuasion, he’s at the top of the game, and these four examples illustrate why. Through the lens of my copywriting-colored glasses, I called the election for him in April of 2016, and started making friendly bets over the summer.
I’ve long kept most of my political views to myself, and that’s not about to change. Nothing I’ve written here should be construed as an endorsement for, or indictment against Trump (or his fans or haters). No matter who’s in office, I wish deeply for the strength and prosperity of America.
My contribution to that has been to create digital courses that help people solve specific problems, to build a business that employs great people and pays them well, and to write copy that supports our sales.
Copywriting was the “superpower” that took my business to eight figures of revenue, and the same principles we use to drive millions of dollars in revenue, are the ones I saw Trump use to get elected.
If you’re interested in learning more on this topic, I have two suggestions:
1 – I’m hosting occasional webinars on the subject of copywriting. If I’m running one in the near future, there will be a signup link here:
2 – check out Scott Adams’ blog. There are a number of points of disagreement I have with Scott, but his analysis of the Trump campaign has been fascinating and enjoyable to follow.