With the simple statement ‘I have a dream’, Martin Luther King encapsulated the essence of what he wanted to say, while capturing the emotion, intrigue and imagination of thousands, not just at that time but also in decades to come. His historic speech encouraged the listener to want more, to say ‘what is your dream, tell me, I’m listening, I want to hear…’ and the boldness with which he did it instilled confidence. He told a story with his words and painted a picture of a future that no individual had dared to imagine possible.
During World War II Churchill pronounced “We shall fight on the beaches…..we shall fight them with growing confidence…….we shall never surrender” building an evocative picture of British and ally troops enduring against the odds, instilling a belief that, even during a time when spirits were at their lowest ebb, winning was still a genuine prospect.
At the time that these speeches were given they pulled at the emotions of entire populations: fears and concerns that individuals felt they were struggling with alone. They brought people together in hope and a common belief that things could be better, that it would all work out OK, spelling out a story with a ‘happy ever after’ ending.
We, with our ancient brains, have evolved to respond to stories. It’s not by chance that fairy tales have lived on from generation to generation. For centuries, before the time of writing and the printing press, story telling was the only mechanism by which to pass on knowledge and information. And when a story reassures and provides a happy ending we want to believe it.
Our ancient (aka subconscious) brain also crudely rates a person’s ability to communicate with how much esteem we should hold them in and to an extent this does, ‘crudely speaking’ provide us with some direction. Unfortunately with the complexity of the advanced world it becomes ever more difficult to filter fact from fiction and easier for a potential leader to ‘cover up’ a lack of capability by spinning a good line. We don’t have time to read and understand all of the information ourselves. Consequently we hopefully cling on to a rudimentary belief that a good and confident communicator, someone who can speak plainly and simply, who can paint a picture and make promises of a better tomorrow, is an intelligent, trustworthy and worthy leader who will guide us through the complexity.
Hitler is an example of how with a basic understanding of our ancient brain it’s possible to create communications that lead to horrific manipulation. Hitler was not a remarkable, popular or intelligent man (factors that we’d normally look for in a leader) but whilst he was in jail he garnered information from work by French social psychologist Gustave Le Bon (incidentally the same works that Mussolini read) and used this knowledge to create communications that allowed him to garner the trust of thousands of Germans. He created simple and repetitive messages that struck a deeply emotional connection with the German population at a time when they were in desperate need of a better future.
This is a ‘crude’ outline of Hitler’s Guide to Communication from Mein Kempf:
- Convey only 1 or 2 points.
- Speak to people’s emotions and stir them constantly. Be forthright, confident in what you say and powerfully direct.
- Reduce concepts down into stereotypes which are black and white.
- Repeat your points over and over again.
- Find slogans which can be used to drive the movement forward.
This bears a scary similarity with what is occurring currently in the States. Nicholas O’Shaughnessy Professor of Communication at the University of London, who specializes in Hitler, has given a detailed analysis of the similarities between his and Trump’s approach. Trump, in spite of a lack of substance behind what he is saying or experience in what politics, has convinced millions of his credibility.
At a broad level, this is how Trump’s approach fits with Hitler’s guide:
- e.g. Make America Great Again
- e.g. Stirring emotion of how things have gone astray and how to bring back the ‘American Dream’. Reference to what could be, to an idealistic future that people want to believe in. Every middle American who feels that they have been overlooked will buy into a hope that things could be better. And Trump really does believe what he says; he is confident, forthright, direct and therefore convincing.
- e.g. Trump said “Zero tolerance for criminal aliens. Zero. Zero. Zero. They don’t come in here, they don’t come in here,” example after example backs up this black and white thinking..On Mexican immigrants: “They’re bringing drugs,’ crime and are ‘rapists”
- e.g. as above and Make America Great Again
- e.g. Make America Great Again
This is an oversimplification (to read a more detailed analysis see link below). Part of the emotional pull is that the change being suggested is so much more hopeful and also easier to feel warmth and belief toward than what is currently. It needs no real substance and may never be delivered on but because it’s different to the reality that people are living in they want to believe it. Clinton only has a version of how things are, the situation that so many American’s are tired of, worn out by, to sell. It’s just not got the same appeal.
Clinton, an effective and eloquent communicator, nevertheless engages more with the rational brain than the emotional, therefore people think rationally about the decision where she is concerned, led by emotion, people think less clearly when it comes to Trump.
Trump has used communication and rhetoric to get to the top. Emotions are a powerful pull – I had a dream, or more accurately a nightmare, let’s see whether or not it comes true….