3rd December, 2017

You can build an empire on words — just ask Donald Trump

I grew up in a literary household. Talk at the kitchen table during mealtimes was of writing, the media and politics — not much use for someone who went into business, I used to think. Discussion of finance and investment would have been much more helpful to my career, or so it seemed to me then.

But over the years I have revised my opinion. I realise that the intelligent use of powerful language — in written and spoken form — is an extremely valuable skill that plays a vital role in many aspects of management.

There are lots of critical occasions when an ability to frame an argument well is enormously useful. Almost all leaders are strong communicators. A facility with words is important for motivating staff, taking command, directing organisations and convincing investors and bankers.

Having watched high-achieving entrepreneurs in action, I understand that facts and reason are not necessarily the key issues when pitching for customers, raising a loan or selling a new venture to backers. To see this in action, I suggest you watch the Channel 4 documentary series Donald Trump: An American Dream. Inevitably much of it focuses on his business career, which is where he learnt his trademark communication tactics. The programme is unquestionably biased, but nevertheless gives an illuminating perspective on Trump’s career.

Even if you don’t like Trump, it is undeniable that he has been financially successful. How did he achieve this? It helped that he was the son of a wealthy property developer, and backed by his father in his enterprises. But it is clear he has become far richer than his father, Fred. Donald’s ability to persuade and argue convincingly — in speech, in his books, on Twitter — have been paramount in his climb to the top.

A recent book gives an unusual insight into how Trump fulfilled his vaulting ambitions — not just in business, but on reality television, and of course in politics. It is called Win Bigly, and written by Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip. Perhaps better than anyone, Adams, in his cartoons, skewers the madness of corporate life. He was a technology worker for 16 years in big companies, so understands how dysfunctional organisations can be, and is very good at laughing at them. But although the author makes jokes for a living, here he’s serious about the art of persuasion.

Trump has been persuading — and bullying — people all his career. New York property developers make their fortunes principally from obtaining planning consents, negotiating tax deals and procuring loans. This activity is less about smart financial calculations, and more about playing politics and gaming the system, which is why Trump was far more suited to the presidential race than many realised — me included.

Win Bigly is a thoughtful analysis of how Trump used 21st century rhetoric to destroy opponents and recruit supporters during the election. All those conspiracy theorists who think Russia won the 2016 US presidential elections should study this book, which explains the techniques Trump has employed to ingenious effect to conquer hearts and minds.

The book has odd stuff about hypnotism and how the author might have influenced the election outcome, but it also makes an intriguing argument that Trump used New York-style business bargaining and publicity seeking to secure the White House.

Trump’s provocation, his hyperbole, his repetition, his simple but direct language, his catchy insults for his enemies, his deliberate ambiguity on difficult issues, his disregard for the truth — these were all tricks he honed in his years as a Manhattan wheeler-dealer.

A variation on this theme is discussed in another new book called Business Bullshit by Andre Spicer. He blames empty talk for many of the problems suffered by corporate workplaces — how bogus slogans, fashionable jargon and endless waffle waste time and undermine purpose. He asserts that so much effort is devoted to producing, circulating and consuming bullshit that organisations have become hollowed out, with management buzzwords replacing real products and services, and employees undertaking pseudo work rather than real jobs.

Spicer’s claims are exaggerated, but he makes salient points: too many executive resources are spent on PowerPoint presentations and similar guff. The more claptrap managers spout to each other, the less clearly they think.

Trump may be a bullshitter, but he knows how to connect and influence. By contrast, modern corporate speak sends audiences to sleep. For impact, learn from The Donald.