Politics

Democrats Should Try This Trump Speaking Strategy

Using dumbed-down language makes people look smarter and more trustworthy.

Short and blocky is good.

Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Images/Getty Images

The first question the president took at his last Trump Tower press conference was about the executives then defecting from his manufacturing council. “Why do you think these CEOs are leaving?” a reporter asked.

Trump was blunt: “Because they are not taking their job seriously as it pertains to this country,” he said. “We want jobs, manufacturing in this country. If you look at some of those people that you’re talking about, they’re outside of the country. They’re having a lot of their product made outside.”

It was classic Trump-ese. The president, of course, talks several grade levels below other politicians. Politico’s Jack Shafer memorably compared his vocabulary to “a small box of Lincoln Logs,” explaining, “He prefers to link short, blocky words into other short, blocky words to create short, blocky sentences that he then stacks into short, blocky paragraphs.”

But while Trump’s language may not be very statesmanlike, it’s one of his biggest strategic advantages. To beat the president in the upcoming elections, Democrats need to start talking like him. That’s because people are more likely to believe and like messages they can easily understand. What's more, people who use simpler language are perceived more intelligent.

Research shows that people like language that’s easier to understand because our brains derive more pleasure from information that is processed faster -- something cognitive scientists call the “hedonic fluency model.” For example, in one study, people judged familiar words (“stormy seas tossed the boat”) as more pleasant than unfamiliar words (“stormy seas tossed the lamp”) -- probably because they were easier to process. The same is true in other languages. For example, one study found that in both English and German, people prefer words that are easier to pronounce.

Easy-to-understand language is also perceived as more credible. For example, one study found that people believe that sayings that rhyme (“What sobriety conceals, alcohol reveals”) are more accurate than the same sentiments presented in non-rhyming prose (“What sobriety conceals, alcohol unmasks”). In another study, college students judged familiar adages (“opposites attract”) as more accurate than the same messages expressed in less familiar ways (“People with divergent interests and personalities tend to be drawn to one another”).

And, perhaps surprisingly, people who use simpler language come across as more intelligent. One series of experiments found that the authors of college admissions essays, translations of an essay by Descartes and a dissertation were viewed as less intelligent when the simpler words they used were replaced with longer, more complex ones. An additional study found that when words are easier to process, people have more confidence in what is being conveyed.

Another thing that helps is using simple names -- such as the malicious monikers Trump has given his rivals, like “Crooked Hillary,” “Lyin’ Ted” and “Little Marco.” In one study, people were more likely to recommend brokerage firms to investors when their names were easier to pronounce. And they thought the stocks of firms with easier names would perform better. A study of actual stock performance found that stocks with more complex names fared worse after they had been on the New York Stock Exchange for one day as well as for one month. 1

Trump’s elementary communication style can also work for Democrats -- with one big difference. The problem for Trump is that, in addition to using simple language, he’s simple-minded. His words aren’t backed up by sophisticated policy proposals. Unlike Trump, Democrats should use basic language to describe informed, complex thoughts. As the linguist and political discourse expert George Lakoff wrote, “The right use of language starts with ideas.”

Democrats needed to start working on these ideas -- and the language to describe them -- now. The political scientist John Kingdon found that it takes years to convince Americans to support new political concepts. Ideas must be “softened” over time through repetition, so that citizens gradually come to support them.

The president has a head start. So Democrats need to start talking like Trump now.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. The impact eventually diminished, since with more time stockbrokers likely had more cues to measure a stock’s value. Still, an investor who had placed $1,000 in a stock with a less complex name would have earned an extra $112 after one day and $333 after a year.

To contact the author of this story:
Kara Alaimo at kara.s.alaimo@hofstra.edu

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