Donald Trump’s speaking style on the stump provides great fodder for late night comedians—and a field day for linguists like me who analyze the way language works in American politics. Trump’s way with words has been called “incoherent” and his sentences downgraded to “sentence-like word strings.” Algorithms show him speaking at a third-grade level, and mocking attempts to diagram his sentences have gone viral on Twitter.
But Trump’s detractors dismiss the Republican nominee at their own peril. His disastrous policies and bullying demeanor aside, Trump has managed to engage millions of people with his rallies, debate performances and television appearances.
Mocking the way he speaks might be entertaining, but as the pivotal Presidential debates approach, perhaps it’s worth asking what Hillary Clinton can learn from the way Trump uses language.
TrumpTalk Rule #1: It’s smart to dumb things down
One of the most notable characteristics of Trump Talk is his use of simple words and sentences.
Take a look at some opening lines from Trump’s announcement speech on June 16, 2015:
“Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t have victories anymore. We used to have victories, but we don’t have them. When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say, China in a trade deal? They kill us. I beat China all the time. All the time.”
Compare that to the opening lines of Hillary Clinton’s announcement speech on June 13:
“President Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms are a testament to our nation’s unmatched aspirations and a reminder of our unfinished work at home and abroad. His legacy lifted up a nation and inspired presidents who followed. One is the man I served as Secretary of State, Barack Obama, and another is my husband, Bill Clinton.”
Every word in Trump’s opening paragraph is among the 2,000 most common words in English, according to a massive database of speech and writing. Clinton’s, on the other hand, is riddled with intermediate- to advanced-level English that don’t make the Top 2,000 list: testament, unmatched, aspirations, abroad, legacy and inspire.
Trump’s use of simple language isn’t an accident. He offered his own insight on his linguistic strategy during a speech last December:
“I used to use the word ‘incompetent.’ Now I just call them ‘stupid.’ I went to an Ivy League school. I’m very highly educated. I know words. I have the best words. I have the best, but there is no better word than ‘stupid.’”
Trump’s comments were widely mocked, but he’s right about the power of simplicity in language. Brain science shows it can be smart to dumb things down. Our brains “process” information and ideas more easily when the language used to convey them are easy to understand. When words and sentences are complex, you lose people’s attention—and even their trust.
In psycholinguistics, “fluency theory” holds that people are more likely to believe information they can quickly process. When you use complex words or sentences, you distract your audience’s brains, as their “working memory” tries to interpret unfamiliar words and understand the ideas embedded within complex sentences.
They literally stop listening—and miss the whole point. And they are less likely to believe what they have heard. This could exacerbate Hillary Clinton’s challenge in winning the trust of wavering voters. If they can’t follow what she’s saying in the debates, she’ll lose them.
This explains why it’s absolutely essential to eradicate policy jargon from language intended to persuade voters. Jargon is appropriate when you’re talking to experts schooled in a specialized vocabulary—like policy wonks. But trotting out ten-dollar words with voters will leave many dazed and confused.
TrumpTalk Rule #2: Repeat, repeat, repeat
Another thing many people notice about Donald Trump’s way of speaking is that he repeats himself. A lot.
Nearly any excerpt of Trump’s speech will show him defaulting to the same words again and again for effect. Here’s Trump in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in July, responding to Hillary Clinton’s criticisms about his temperament:
“She’s a very dishonest person. I have one of the great temperaments. I have a winning temperament. She has a bad temperament. She’s weak. We need a strong temperament. And that’s all it is. I have a strong temperament, and I know how to win.”
One reason why repetition is an effective linguistic strategy is because repeating a single word can frame an entire debate. For example, in 2011 when congressional Republicans were refusing to raise the nation’s debt limit, Republicans and Democrats often framed the policy debate in those terms.
But when politicians said, “Raise the debt limit,” people heard, “Run up the credit card.” So it wasn’t surprising when a Pew Research poll in May of that year showed 48 percent of voters opposed raising the debt limit.
Our advice to Democrats was simple: Stop talking about the debt limit. Start the conversation with the word “default”—and keep repeating it. People hear this as “defaulting on your mortgage,” which is a catastrophe for a family. And defaulting on the debt would be a catastrophe for the economy.
Leaders in Congress and the Obama Administration started talking about the danger of “default,” and the idea soon caught on in news and social media. The polls promptly underwent a dramatic turnaround, the Democrats succeeded in staving off a catastrophic default, and the rest is history. Changing a single word changed the conversation.
Like Democrats in the default debate, Trump uses repetition to hammer home his key words and themes. And according to another psychological insight, if an idea is already in our head, we are more likely to believe it is important. The “familiarity heuristic” says that ideas we have heard before feel credible. By repeating key words over and over again, Trump keeps certain ideas in people’s heads, where they’re easier to access, understand and believe.
Secretary Clinton could take this cue from Trump—and focus on driving home a few key ideas that might motivate people to support her. Media reports indicate that young people aren’t excited about her candidacy, so she might do well to hammer home a few points about making college more affordable and creating jobs that pay well.
TrumpTalk Rule #3: Put people in the picture
If there’s one thing Donald Trump wants us to know, it’s that people love him. Women love him. Hispanics love him. “The gays” love him. The crowds at his rallies are huge. He’s doing great in the polls.
This isn’t Trump being delusional, or pampering his fragile ego. He’s actually drawing on a classic persuasion technique called “social proof,” which says that when making decisions, people tend to jump on the nearest bandwagon. They look to see what others like themselves are doing and follow the crowd.
By talking incessantly about his supposed supporters, Trump creates the false impression that “most” people like him—which signals to his audience that it’s OK for them to like him, too.
By the way, it doesn’t matter that public opinion polls don’t back him up. Another truth from psychological studies of language and persuasion is that people are more likely to believe lies that are repeated time and again. If you’ve heard something before, you’re more likely to believe it to be true.
Here’s Trump talking in New Hampshire in April about how he plans to get the support of women:
“There is nobody that respects women more than me, and I notice a lot of women are saying that…So many women are saying, 'We like Donald Trump because we feel he’s going to be the strongest for the country in terms of protection, in terms of the border, in terms of ISIS, in terms of other countries,' and I win by such a margin.”
Trump could have said, “Women will support me because I am going to be the strongest,” etc. But instead of asserting this himself, he puts the claim in the mouths of alleged female supporters: “So many women are saying…”
True or not, this technique is powerful. Trump’s talk feeds a narrative about the campaign that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: If people believe others are jumping on his bandwagon, they are more likely to get on board.
Statistics don’t drive voter behavior, stories do. And Trump’s language tells a story of a candidate with the wind at his back as the presidential campaign enters the home stretch. This is another technique Hillary Clinton could use herself. After all, she actually has more supporters than Trump.
Donald Trump might not know much about policy, either foreign or domestic. He might not know much about any of the issues he talks about on the stump. But he knows exactly what he’s doing when he opens his mouth.
Pete Tontillo is a linguist with Hattaway Communications, a strategic communications firm that uses brain science and the social sciences to develop research-based strategies, content and campaigns.