Like many people, I’ve been watching President Trump’s recent press conferences – especially yesterday’s calamitous, hour-long session (16 Feb) – with my jaw dropped in disbelief. Leaving aside his policies, the conferences are fascinating lessons on how to communicate effectively and inspire confidence and trust – and how not to.

The power of simple language

On the positive side, Trump follows once principle which is vital for good communications, especially when addressing a mainstream audience (in his case: the American people). He talks in broad concepts and simple words – mostly of one or two syllables. There’s interesting analysis of this here (although I disagree that he also uses simple sentence structures, as explained below).

This is a practice all great communicators follow, whether they’re business bosses, community leaders, scientists or politicians. It grates horribly when people talk in management-speak and business clichés because they think it sounds clever – and Trump does not do this. Having the ability and confidence to express ideas in simple, easily-understood language is far better.

I think this played some role in helping Trump gain support from the US electorate as this article argues (and, of course, he got elected – though that may have been more down to his populist, America-first policies than his communication flair).

But it doesn’t work for me and, even amongst his supporters, his approval ratings are sliding now.

So why doesn’t simple language work for Trump?

I think the answer is partly because he just takes it too far. His concepts and language are so simplistic, he comes across less as an intelligent person who’s distilled the pertinent points from a complex situation than one with a child-like understanding of the world. People expect much more of a political leader.

We saw this repeatedly during the election and since. And we heard it loud and clear in yesterday’s press conference, where he categorised things as “nice”, “good,” “bad” or “nasty” – and said this to explain the dangers of uranium:

“You know what uranium is, right? This thing called nuclear weapons, and other things. Like, lots of things are done with uranium, including some bad things.”

We also heard it in Wednesday’s press conference with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu when he answered a question about the recent rise of anti-Semitism in the US with “you’re gonna see a lotta love. You’re gonna see a lotta love”. The words were user-friendly and selectively using repetition for emphasis can be highly effective. But it was too simplistic and devoid of substance. My six-year-old daughter can describe the world in more meaningful terms.

Disconnected rambles

The other big factor which I think lets Trump down despite his use of simple vocabulary is his tendency to talk without preparation and to ramble – failing to address the question … patching together disconnected comments … repeatedly interrupting himself with side points as they pop into his head … not finishing his train of ….

Here’s a good example from 2015 when asked to give his view on the Iranian nuclear deal (it also shows his self-absorption as discussed below):

“Look, having nuclear — my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, okay, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart — you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, okay, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world — it’s true! — but when you’re a conservative Republican they try — oh, do they do a number — that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune — you know I have to give my like credentials all the time.”

He only managed three words before veering off-topic. Simple language, in the face of this, doesn’t stand a chance.

The big problem in this for Trump is it’s human nature to make judgements about the workings of people’s minds from what they say (and do). In his case, it gives the impression his mind is equally unfocused, disconnected and unable to reach conclusions. This might work well for an eccentric artist or maverick rock star. Not so much for a president.

Four further lessons

On top of these fundamental points, this week’s press conferences provide four further reminders of how to communicate effectively which apply to any spokespeople:

1. Talk with your audience, rather than yourself, in mind. In Trump’s case, his end audience this week should have been the American people and his message should surely have been what he’s doing for them and how much he cares. Instead, most of his focus was on himself – how well he did in the election (a constant theme for him); how “nice” a person he really is; how he’s being victimised by the media; how he wants press questions which are easy for him to answer and flatter him (“I want to find a friendly reporter … Now that’s what I call a nice question”) and doesn’t want to answer ones which challenge him, which he labels “bad” or “fake”.

When asked about the rise in anti-Semitism at the Netanyahu conference, he immediately started talking about his electoral college victory – which had everything to do with him, nothing to do with the question and made him appear ridiculous:

“Well I just want to say that we are, you know, very honoured by the victory we had. 306 electoral college votes. We were not supposed to crack 220. You know that, right? There was no way to 220 but then they said no way to 270.”

It appears he simply decided he’d rather talk about his election victory than the topic raised by the journalist on behalf of his readers.

When asked a reasonable question about a similar matter yesterday by a reporter who started by stressing he wasn’t suggesting Trump is anti-Semitic, Trump took it to be all about himself anyway and launched into a defensive tirade:

“Number one, I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life. Number two, racism – the least racist person …”

… and halfway through this, interrupted his own train and started hurling abuse at the reporter, seemingly for a personal accusation he never made:

“See he lied that he was going to ask a straight simple question. Welcome to the world of the media. I hate the charge. I find it repulsive, I hate even the question … take that instead of getting up and asking a very insulting question.”

2. Always respect the media, even if you don’t enjoy their attention. Because they’re not going away.

Trump’s strategy of gathering the world’s journalists in a room to attack them for being “nasty” and “fake” (“I’m just telling you, you’re dishonest people”) is hard to fathom.

It seems the level of accountabilty he’s suddenly acquired is a shock to him and he can’t stop himself lashing out. But baulking at critical attention makes him looks weak, with something to hide.

And shouting down questions he doesn’t like because they’re challenging – calling them “fake news” – is ridiculous. His team does this too. But, as reporter Evan Davis on last night’s Newsnight pointed out, how can a question be either “fake” or “news”? “Fake news” has become a juvenile playground chant for him and his team – just take a look at his Twitter feed.

Does Trump really think he can cut out the media and talk directly to America entirely via Twitter and You Tube as his aids have suggested?  If so, why did he call press conferences this week at all? The media will report on him regardless and America will continue to watch and read. Attacking journalists will only encourage hositility and an ever-more critical view of his policies and behaviour.

3. Check your facts. Trump boldly declared he’d won a bigger vote margin than any president since Reagan. The journalists in the room with good political knowledge, plus any who checked on their smartphones, knew that was false.

When one pointed out Obama and Clinton had won more votes, he oddly claimed he was only taking about Republicans. When the reporter pointed out Bush had won more, Trump blamed someone else: “I was given that information, I was just given it.”

If you’re caught making false claims, you’ll lose credibility and people will doubt you when you tell the truth. Trump and team seem to be making a habit of this. It would have been far better to have stuck to facts he was sure of or, having made a blunder, at least to have apologised for his error and moved on.

4. Take responsibility. If you’re in a grown-up leadership position, you have to take responsibility for things that don’t go well. Like it or not, that’s part of your role. But, when pressed on matters that aren’t going smoothly for his new administration, Trump petulantly blamed Obama for leaving him with “a mess.” Hardly a statesmanlike move.

He then made grandious claims of success which were patently groundless – describing his administration so far as “a finely-tuned machine” and saying “we had a very smooth rollout of the travel ban”. He’d have gained far greater credibility, and maybe even some sympathy, if he’d confessed to teething problems and stressed his determination to iron them out.

Trump’s whole approach to communicating (leaving aside his policies and actions) feels chaotic to the point of collapse right now.

But then, I didn’t think he had a chance of getting elected in the first place, so what do I know? We live in interesting times, and perhaps the US electorate will carry him onwards regardless.

Image by Gage Skidmore

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