With Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip and author of several works of satire, commentary, and business, including Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter
Steve continues his conversation with Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip, about his new book, Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter.
Low Energy Jeb
Scott deconstructs the tactics Trump used to persuade his way to the White House. One of his favorite examples is Trump’s “linguistic kill shots”. For instance, his effective use of provocative labels to write off competitors, such as a tweet about Jeb Bush calling him ‘Low Energy Jeb’ that marked the beginning of the end of Jeb Bush’s campaign.
Scott believes the nickname was far more than a casual insult; it was engineered with the tools of persuasion. Before the tag, Jeb was seen as a cool, collected, executive type personality, exactly the person you’d want if you had a national crisis. But the moment Trump redefined him as low energy, it stuck in voters’ minds and edged him out of the race.
Crooked Hillary and Lyin’ Ted were other similarly constructed name tags that were quite effective. For instance, Trump put an apostrophe after the N in Lyin’, which is a technique to make you pause and wonder why the apostrophe’s there instead of a G, an intentional wrongness that makes you remember it. And memory is what makes you think something is a priority, as Steve also covered in How the Media Hijacks Your Mind Without You Knowing It.
In other words, if you spend a lot of time talking about, say, shark attacks, suddenly you start thinking shark attacks are the biggest problem in the world, when in reality they’re not.
While the Democrats tried to label Trump with various nicknames, none of them stuck. In Win Bigly, Scott outlines Trump’s A-B Testing technique where he tested a few things before settling on one, and the ones he settled on really stuck.
Democratic Flubs At Tagging Trump
Clinton supporters tried “Drumpf”, Trump’s original German name, but it was completely off-brand, forgettable, had no technique behind it, and just didn’t stick.
Their worst attempt was trying to call him Donald Duck because he was ducking the release of his tax returns, but Donald Duck is a universally loved character, so that didn’t work to the Dem’s advantage either.
The Democrats then tried “Dangerous Donald” because they wanted to paint him as someone’s who’s going to blow up the world, but they didn’t factor in that Trump supporters wanted a dangerous candidate to drain the swamp in Washington D.C., kill ISIS, and do the things that had to be done. So none of Trump’s nicknames were well put together by the opposition.
How Far Is Too Far?
This linguistic kill-shot technique entails poking a hole in the fabric of reality, to make you stop and think, and using memory as a persuader. While Trump’s technique clearly works, Steve wonders if there is a point where it goes too far and is simply just wrong.
Scott believes Trump has built his brand on not being politically correct, so where others might fail, Trump gets away with it because he’s being true to his branding. Trump has injected a new level of showmanship into politics, to draw your attention to whatever he wants you to see, while making sure he operates in a narrow band of wrongness, that’s a bit un-Presidential, but not too much that his supporters call foul.
Moreover, his results have been spectacular. He won the nomination against all odds, he won the presidency against all odds, the stock market has had an amazing run, consumer confidence is up, and things look quite positive, so his strategy appears to be working, at least for now.
As Scott noted, not everyone succeeds at linguistic kill-shots, so there’s little value in mimicking Trump on this count. Instead, Scott Adams new book, Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter, to see how you can use persuasion to your advantage in life’s various situations.
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Steve Pomeranz: We’re back with Scott Adams. Scott, of course, is the cartoonist of “Dilbert”, and we’re talking about his book, Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter. Scott, I want you to deconstruct the tactics Trump used to persuade his way into the White House. Give us some ideas.
Scott Adams: Well, my favorite examples are what I call his linguistic kill shots. Now, people are very familiar with him now, but remember at the beginning of the campaign they were provocative and people were scratching their head, “Why is he tweeting that Jeb Bush is ‘Low Energy Jeb’?” But the day that I saw that, the first day, I said publicly, “That’s the end of the Jeb Bush campaign.” It turns out you could map it to that day. That was pretty much the end of him. The reason was that I could see that his nickname was far more than just a casual insult, that it was engineered with the tools of persuasion and, specifically, what he did was he reframed Jeb from what I think most people, including me…when we looked at Jeb Bush we saw this cool, collected, executive type personality, exactly the person you’d want if you had a national crisis. Man, this person is cool. He’s got it together. But the moment that Trump redefined him as low energy, you couldn’t stop seeing that. It became instant, and it was sticky, and it was reinforced every time you saw either Jeb do something that was normally his Low Energy Jeb persona versus Trump’s high energy campaign and his rallies—you saw this huge contrast, so that became sticky.
Steve Pomeranz: Is this the same as Crooked Hillary or some of the other names? Is that all part of that?
Scott Adams: Yes. Yeah, so if you look at the similar construction for the other ones that worked well—so Lyin’ Ted Cruz, he put an apostrophe after the N in Lyin’, and that’s a technique to make you pause, and wonder why the apostrophe’s there instead of the G, all right? Anything that’s sort of an intentional wrongness, and you’ll see this all over his persuasion; it’s his best technique; it makes you pause, and then that’s the thing you remember. And memory is what makes you think something is a priority. In other words, if you spend a lot of time talking about, let’s say, shark attacks, suddenly you start thinking shark attacks are the biggest problem in the world, when really, they’re not. So, he makes you think about things-
Steve Pomeranz: Well, especially during shark week in ratings season, right?
Scott Adams: Yeah, it gets worse then, for sure.
Steve Pomeranz: Go ahead.
Scott Adams: So, with getting back to Lyin’ Ted; Ted Cruz has this unfortunate face that looks like the kind of character if you were a movie director you would cast as the villain. He’s sort of got beady eyes, and he just has a look that makes you think, “Well, is he telling the truth or not?”
Now, let me be clear. I have nothing against Ted Cruz, and I have no idea if he tells the truth more or less than an average senator or politician, but he sort of looks like he might, which is the genius of the linguistic kill shot. And then, you knew that because it was a political race, that all the politicians would be accused of lying or exaggerating at some point. It’s just built into the system, then you would be reminded of the nickname again, same with Crooked Hillary.
Steve Pomeranz: Does it make the bully in the room or the person who is calling these names, does it somehow create a protection around them, and it lifts them up out of that same fray? I mean, didn’t the Democrats try to label Trump with a nickname as well?
Scott Adams: Yeah, so you can see the advantage of technique because Trump’s nicknames almost universally stuck. He did a few what I call A B testing, where he tested a few things before settling on one, but the ones he settled on really stuck. Now, compare that to the poorly engineered attempts on the other side, where they tried to nickname him. One was they tried to nickname him—at least, this was a lot of the followers, not the Clinton campaign—by the old Austrian original name for Trump, which was Drumpf, D-R-U-M-P-F or something. The name itself was funny, and I guess it was meant to feel a little demeaning, except if you’re the Democrat party, your whole idea is inclusiveness and not calling people out for their ethnicity?
Steve Pomeranz: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Scott Adams: That’s sort of your thing? And that’s exactly what they were doing to him, so it was completely off-brand; it was forgettable; they had no technique whatsoever and it disappeared. But their worst attempt was one of the operatives—we saw this on a hidden video from Project Veritas—was talking about trying to get Donald Duck going, so we’ll call him Donald Duck because he’s ducking his tax returns. He’s ducking this question. The problem is, Donald Duck is a lovable, universally loved character.
Steve Pomeranz: It’s owned by Disney, too. I don’t think they’re going to appreciate it too much.
Scott Adams: Right, so they had every problem you could have in a nickname. Then they tried Dangerous Donald because, “Oh, he’s dangerous, he’s going to blow up the world,” but they didn’t factor in the fact that his supporters wanted a dangerous candidate to drain the swamp and kill ISIS and do the things that had to be done. So, you notice that none of Trump’s nicknames could be turned around to a positive, but Dangerous Donald could be, and-
Steve Pomeranz: Just recently, there was a clip of President Trump honoring some native Indians, and he brought up Pocahontas.
Scott Adams: Yeah, right.
Steve Pomeranz: I get that now from what you’re telling us. You want to poke a hole in the fabric of reality, make you stop and think, memory as a persuader, and now we’re back thinking about Elizabeth Warren only as Pocahontas. You know, but it’s so disrespectful to the moment, and it’s fine, I don’t care if he’s selling cars or he’s selling real estate, but as a President who’s representing a whole country, isn’t … I mean, is there a point where this persuasion is … Maybe it’s incredibly effective, but it’s just wrong?
Scott Adams: There are a lot of rules that apply to President Trump that will probably never apply to any other candidate, and the reason that he can get away with stuff is that he has, first of all, a brand that specifically calls out not being politically correct. As long as you’re being consistent and on-brand, people will give you a little bit more of a pass than if they see you operating in a way that seems counter to your own brand. You see, that’s the-
Steve Pomeranz: In other words, if we hear this enough … I mean, foreign leaders are seeing this. The world is seeing this from their own point of view and their own cultures, but if they see it enough, won’t it eventually just become a part of the fabric and not a pinpoint in it anymore?
Scott Adams: Yes, and the way I describe it is my mother had this saying. She would say, “You can get used to anything if you do it long enough, including hanging,” and-
Steve Pomeranz: Including hanging?
Scott Adams: … The idea is that if, yeah, if you see Trump acting this way long enough, it starts to look normal to you, and I think you’re seeing that. For example, you notice that he’ll have five provocative tweets that make CNN wonder if he’s lost his mind, he’s going crazy, and they’ll be on silly issues about personalities, people he’s poking. But then he’ll have another tweet that might be about North Korea, and it’s completely serious and just says, “President XI is doing something; We’ve got this.” You can see that he can change tones in a heartbeat. Now people are starting to understand that there’s a part of what he brings to politics that no one else ever has, and maybe nobody else ever will, which is the showman part. He’s actually bringing a sense of theater, a sense of the drama, but it’s becoming a little more clear in people’s minds. Not everybody yet, but over time, people are starting to understand, that some of it is just the show, and its point is to draw the attention to whatever he wants you to see. Sometimes-
Steve Pomeranz: We can’t help it, it’s the car wreck syndrome. We can’t help but slow down and look. This imagery, the Lyin’ Ted, the Low Energy this, the Crooked Hillary, those are so powerful, but will they wear off over time?
Scott Adams: Well, he operates in what I call a narrow band of wrongness, meaning that just about everything that you see in the news, he is doing something in that area that’s a little bit un-Presidential, according to us.
Steve Pomeranz: Yes.
Scott Adams: And yet, he’s been doing this since the beginning of the campaign, and his results have been spectacular. He got the nomination against all odds doing all of this stuff. He got the presidency against all odds doing all of this stuff. Now we’re watching the stock market at a high, consumer confidence up, a whole bunch of movement, and international things that look positive, at least now — nobody could predict the future — but it seems that time after time, he does what you’re not supposed to do, but he gets a good result, and after some point, people are going to recognize the pattern.
Steve Pomeranz: The book is Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter. The author is cartoonist of Dilbert cartoons, Scott Adams. This is a book if you want to learn how to persuade, you want to understand the psychology of persuasion, and get some very good insights that we don’t really have the time to explore here, I highly recommend this book. Don’t forget, to hear this discussion again, to read it again, to weigh in on this discussion, join the conversation at StevePomeranz.com. Scott, thank you so much for joining me today.
Scott Adams: Oh, thank you, it was a pleasure.