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How to Win a Presidential Election

In less than 48 hours we’ll know the identity of the 45th President of the United States.

This year’s contest has been characterised by unrelenting character attacks.

But how have Trump and Clinton’s communication styles differed from each other?

And which will ultimately prove successful?

The moral high ground

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Traditionally, politicians arm-wrestle with each other to win control of the Moral High Ground.

A thousand years ago, if you built your castle on top of a hill, it was easier to defend.

Today – the same goes for your argument.

Trump’s slogan that he will Make America Great Again is an attempt to occupy the Moral High Ground.

It’s endured throughout his campaign – while Clinton has struggled to find a slogan anyone can remember.

But when Trump has threatened to build a wall along the Mexico border – or ban Muslims from entering the States, he’s handed the Moral High Ground to Clinton on a plate.

And when his “locker-room” comments about women (his words) were released through the media, Clinton surged in the opinion polls.

Jargon-free language

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When UK politicians promise affordable housing or social justice, I want to ask them to draw a picture of that.

That’s exactly what we ask people to do on our media training and presentation skills courses, run mainly from our Glasgow studios.

Trump’s Mexican wall is a classic example of an idea that people can see – and some clearly like it.

Clinton’s been clear about adding 4% to the tax bills of the super-rich.

Most can see envisage how their pay-cheques will look as a result, and many of those potentially affected clearly dislike it.

However the clearest image is what UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson once called “the dead cat on the kitchen table“.

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Can you see that?

If you’re losing an argument, Johnson recalled in an interview with The Telegraph, one tactic is to cause a distraction.

To point at the table and say:

“my god, there’s a dead cat on the table”.

Now everyone is talking about that, rather than the failings of your own argument.

Trump has done this repeatedly as his ‘dead cats’ dominated debates with better-known Republican candidates, with whom he would have lost policy debates.

Many of the American people have tolerated numerous “dead cats” from Trump.

What’s more, the images are so clear and the messages to memorable that his supporters can repeat them, word for word.

Body language

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We’ve written extensively about positive body language here.

Here Hillary wins hands-down (pardon the pun).

Trump’s single finger-in-the-air gesture suggests he’s making a point.

But when his does it all the time, it’s meaningless.

Hillary has looked stateswomanlike during debates and appeared unruffled amid Trump’s hectoring and prowling around the stage, towering over her.

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Trump’s body language at times seemed threatening.

It’s difficult to find still images of him smiling, rather than frowning and pulling faces.

The mean expression allied to the unusual hair makes an interesting combination.

What’s in it for the audience

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Both candidates seem to have forgotten what the audience (the electorate) wants.

“Crooked Hillary” has been Trump’s battle cry over the email controversy.

“A man unfit to be President” has been the riposte from Clinton.

Either way, the campaign has been personality-driven throughout.

And every time another personal attack is reported, a policy idea or vision of the country is lost in the mist.

“I tell it like it is”

says Trump.

I always associate that phrase with people detached from reality.

Trump’s supporters repeatedly tell news crews that their man “tells it like it is”, so his message is getting through.

I remember advising a political party leader in Scotland that their audience becomes bored and angry with personal attacks.

What they really want to hear is what’s in it for them.

The leader paid attention – then launched another personal attack the following day.

Likeability

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If we are to follow leaders, it helps greatly that we like them.

A fresh-faced Tony Blair appeared likeable when entering 10 Downing Street in 1997 with his young family.

His haunted face these days bears the mental scares of a decade in power and popular opinion turning against him over Iraq.

But there’s a reason many of the American voters are talking about Hillary Clinton as “the least bad option” or the “second worst” candidate.

She’s just difficult to like.

There can be a sternness or tense aura about her.

While she smiles on stage, it looks phoney.

Rather like the smile I pull when going through airport security – that immediately makes me look guilty.

As for Donald, he demonstrates narcissistic characteristics – such as referring to himself continuously as Donald J Trump.

It’s just too difficult to like someone who does that.

How to win an election, or a referendum

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Throw enough mud at a wall and it will stick.

Former President Lyndon Johnson is famed to have started rumours about a rival candidate having inappropriate and illegal relations with a pig.

Although he knew the rumours were without foundation, he knew that having to deny it would drive him to distraction.

When we work with political parties, we advise against this approach from the outset.

Focusing on a positive image of change is a safer, more successful strategy.

Indeed, one of the reasons I believe the ‘Yes’ to independence cause made ground in Scotland while the ‘No’ campaign lost ground, is that its supporters laid out a positive image of the future of the country.

You could say the same for Brexit, despite widespread fears of the legitimacy of those claims.

It’s the same with media interviews you conduct in Glasgow, Edinburgh or beyond.

Establish the Moral High Ground, use clear images, positive body language, focus on your policies and remain likeable.

White House

So there we are.

Two different methods of communicating.

Two different sets of messages.

Just one vacancy.

As Donald J Trump would say to his apprentices:

“This week, one of you will be fired!”

Bill McFarlan is Executive Chairman of media training and presentation skills training firm Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.

You can view his full profile here.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore via Foter.com / CC BY-SA; Gage Skidmore via Foter.com / CC BY-SA; Michael Vadon via Foter.com / CC BY-SA; marcn via Foter.com / CC BY; wfowlkes via Foter.com / CC BY; marcn via Foter.com / CC BY; ThatMattWade via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

7th November 2016 Featured in: Blog By:

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