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How a fourth-grader’s vocabulary won the presidential election

Tom Climie, Quill account manager, examines Trump's preference for simple oratory over traditional political rhetoric.

First, let me apologise in advance for I am about to do the unforgivable and write about the US election. But bear with me: this will not be a piece adding to the gnashing and wailing of teeth over The Donald’s election and neither will I be getting on my political high horse. There are few things I am qualified to do: discussing US politics is not one of them.

What struck me over the course of the election is how Donald Trump speaks. Not the more colourful or offensive aspects of his rhetoric but the way he delivers speeches or answers questions. He keeps it simple and repeats himself. A lot.

Evan Puschak has done some excellent analysis on How Donald Trump Answers A Question based on an exactly one minute response he gave on the Jimmy Kimmel show. It is a great illustration of how Trump has abandoned the refined speech usually associated with politicians. In fact, it’s the equivalent of a fourth grade student! Of the 220 words in the answer, 172 have just one syllable, 39 have two and only four words have three syllables – three of which are the word “tremendous”.

Repetition is an important tool to Trump’s success. We all remember his oft repeated slogan “Make America Great Again” and he was keen on promising ‘’to win” (sometimes “bigly”). As well as “tremendous”, other popular buzzwords are “huge”, “terrible” and “beautiful”. He also likes saying “I’m really rich”.

Looking at Trump’s acceptance speech we can see how he uses repetition to drive his message home powerfully but simply. Striking a reconciliatory tone, he uses the word “together” three times in the space of 100 words (“get together”, “come together”, “work together”). And while discussing foreign policy, he says: “We will have great relationships. We expect to have great, great relationships.” Repetition is a discipline he has mastered with real effect. 

Finally, consider this snippet, again drawn from his acceptance speech. It is a perfect summary of the Trump recipe: full of short, simple words and spiced with a hint of repetition.

“We must reclaim our country’s destiny and dream big and bold and daring. We have to do that. We’re going to dream of things for our country and beautiful things and successful things once again.”

It’s not particularly coherent but it is bizarrely effective. I find his use of language and the way he speaks fascinating.

Now, I am not recommending that clients start speaking like fourth-graders but I do think there are some things worth noting when it comes to getting your message across and engaging with a broad audience. Consistency is certainly one.  I also appreciate that not everything can be explained with a few single syllable words – implied volatility for example – but bamboozling people with a fog of sophisticated but meaningless prose is unlikely to be engaging either.