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Reagan’s Power of Persuasion

Ronald Reagan was by any account a mass of contradictions. This may well have contributed to his success as a negotiator and a persuader.

The descriptions by colleagues and contemporaries of his first meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev at the Geneva Summit in 1985 amount to an exemplary case study of either remarkable good luck, the sheer force of personality, brilliant technique in persuasion, or perhaps all three.

In addition to an array of negotiation best practices – have your opponent come to you; appear both more casual and better dressed; be extraordinarily well-prepared – Reagan used one of the 7 key persuasion triggers in a very particular and very effective way.

Here’s the Geneva Summit clip. Can you identify which trigger Reagan activated and how?

Reagan’s success at seducing and swaying Gorbachev, in getting the Soviet leader’s sympathies and camaraderie, is credited to the American president’s ability to be “genuine, authentic, human;” an approach traditionally rejected by conservative American politicians of the era. Reagan’s charismatic “high beams,” as son Ron puts it, were in full force, and won over an initially intransigent Gorbachev.

But there’s a critical factor of the victory missing in this calculation. The legitimate fear on the part of U.S. political leadership was that such a strategy would be seen as weak. Ineffectual. Ingratiating. And, had Reagan proceeded right off the bat with this attitude or approach, such fears may well have been realized.

But the president didn’t do that.

Reagan began the conference with a harsh scrutiny of the Soviet legacy on the world stage. He held forth with such a litany of critiques that Gorbachev was forced to chastise the American president for acting like a prosecutor and treating him like a student.

Then, and only then, did Reagan turn on the charm.

What did he do here? The president set an adaptation level. He first established himself as a critic, a hardliner; not to be trifled with; an emissary of rancor and distrust. Then, he flipped the board. Ronald Reagan, the former Hollywood actor, played both bad cop and good cop. And thereby activated…

The Contrast Trigger

All decisions are influenced by context. For example, if you place your hand in a bucket of cold water, your hand feels cold. If you then place it in a bucket of water at room temperature, that water feels warm — warmer than it really is. You have adapted to the cold temperature and now make judgments that are different from those you’d make if you started by putting your hand in a bucket of hot water.

Scientists refer to this as your adaptation level. The human brain responds in a relative way, not an absolute way. This is one reason that logic, reason, and cognitive thought play less of a role in decision-making than we previously thought. Objective facts take a backseat to adaptation level comparisons and perceptions.

In making a persuasive presentation, the way you set up someone’s adaptation level determines your success.



Data Lost, Emotion Won: Lessons from a Shock Election

Neuroscience is clear on this: The emotional brain drives decision-making. Given the right circumstances, it can easily overcome a cognitive disconnect created by evidence. In the war between logic and emotion in the brain, the fight is over before it’s begun.

Big data can be compelling. But the emotion brain is irresistible. Among the mountain of forensics this election is sure to produce, one of the most provocative is how the media, and the data they relied on, were so spectacularly wrong about the likely outcome. How and why did almost every predictor, prognosticator, and pundit so completely and uniformly miss or ignore what was really going on in the electorate?

Mike Barnicle, the famous Boston based journalist, put it this way:

What has happened here – and you could see this coming, you could really see this coming – too many people in our business, they missed the one real draw that brings a lot of people to the polls. And it's emotional. The ability for people to feel something about their candidate, and to feel that they can access their candidate emotionally.

From Doris Kearns Goodwin, the Pulitzer prize winning biographer, historian, and political commentator:

What Trump provided was an appeal to the emotions of the people. He told a story. He had a story that was understandable: 'I'm going to make America great again.' People feel that the country has passed them by; people feel that they want something different. And everything else on the other side was a series of programs. They might have helped people in lots of ways, but they didn't connect emotionally.

Donald Trump, by contrast, offered questionable ideas, irrational solutions, and vague policies. And though few media observers missed his ability to connect more effectively with supporters, they vastly underestimated the emotional power embodied by voters desperate for change. The critical lesson here for sales and marketing? Find the pain. Locate – or even create – the discomfort that begs a solution.

From the neuroscience perspective, emotional displacement of the type that emerges from fear or uncertainty is fertile ground for persuasion.

Trump supporters heard from their candidate what many others also heard that was ill-conceived or even offensive. But they also got what they didn’t get from anyone else: visibility. Recognition of their hardships and fears, and someone to take them seriously. The media failed in virtually all of that.

“People want to see themselves reflected in the stories being told,” said Michael Steele, former chair of the RNC. “That’s a lot of the animus that’s directed toward the media – that they don’t see themselves as being represented.” It was all-too easy for the media to dismiss the support of such an easily lampooned figure as Donald Trump. And it came at a cost to their basic integrity as investigators.

Selena Zito, writing for The Atlantic back in September, was one of the lone voices seeking to draw attention to the real circumstances and attributes of Trump supporters. She articulated a significant and even profound difference in how Trump’s messages were being interpreted by different audiences:

The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.

What’s the basis for this ability on the part of Trump supporters to filter messages and find meaning that resonates? Belief. Whether justified or not, belief that comes from a strong emotional connection can rationalize almost anything. It’s the kind of belief that constitutes a holy grail for a brand or a salesperson. It only happens in the emotional brain. And it’s precisely what Clinton failed to achieve. All the ground game and all the polling data in the world could neither predict nor account for the zealous fervor of an emotionally driven electorate.

There was perhaps just one media figure who was as harshly critical of Trump as he was deeply sympathetic to Trump supporters – a deft cognitive task abdicated by most of the rest of the press.  In his widely acclaimed documentary, Trumpland, filmmaker Michael Moore addresses head-on the often troubling rhetoric of the then-candidate, and it’s relationship to his supporters:

Whether Trump means it or not is kind of irrelevant because he’s saying these things to people who are hurting. And it’s why every beaten-down, nameless, forgotten working stiff, who used to be part of what was called the middle class, loves Trump. He is the human molotov cocktail that they’ve been waiting for. The human hand-grenade that they can legally throw into the system that stole their lives from them.

Business leaders, marketers, and salespeople need to be investigative journalists when it comes to their customers, and they need to do a better job than the majority of those who covered the 2016 presidential campaign. Data need not be rejected, but neither should it be relied upon to the exclusion of direct engagement with customers to learn their plight and to connect on an emotional level. Leave the building. Make eye contact. Ask and listen.

As the great Bob Woodward of The Washington Post relates:

I had a city editor tell me very early on: “Get your ass out of the chair and go there.


Video Review: Political Persuasion Hollywood Style

Neuroscience may have proven its power, but savvy politicians have always relied on messages meant for the emotional brain.

A great example of the long legacy of political persuasion from Hollywood’s golden age is the 1949 American film noir written, produced, and directed by Robert Rossen, All the King’s Men.

Reportedly based on the real-life political career of Huey Long, who served as the 40th Governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932 and as a member of the United States Senate from 1932 until his assassination in 1935, this Hollywood version depicts local boy Willie Stark as a facts-and-figures policy wonk who learns the power of emotional triggers.

Here’s a brief look at how the film depicts the persuasion education of Willie Stark.

Making the Hillary Brand Persuasive

The firestorm of criticism and controversy struck fast and loud. Benghazi? Emailgate? No, branding.

The fact that the public now seizes upon a logo design as the central response to a political campaign launch just goes to show how sophisticated we’ve become about media communications. It’s also something everyone can weigh in on and have some fun with, unlike policy issues or ideology. The level of passion and even vitriol around Clinton’s new campaign logo may have been something of a surprise, but I daresay the campaign is not complaining. For as much as they may have wanted its message to resonate more than its identity design in the campaign announcement video, people are talking. A lot. And not about Hillary’s private email server.


Generating media buzz (and virtually burying Marco Rubio’s announcement in the process) is only part of what the Clinton campaign is achieving so far. Make no mistake: This campaign’s communications organization is already proving itself to be extremely savvy, with some clear competence in successful persuasion methodology. This stuff doesn’t just happen.

In his Inc. article defending the logo design, Edward Cox compiles opinion from branding consultants who point out various attributes being evoked, from Clinton’s “forceful personality style” to the convenient way the logo is likely to function across multiple media channels, sizes and formats. Ashleigh Hansberger of the Motto agency comes close to the mark when he interprets the right-pointing-arrow as “the campaign moving forward.” But it’s undoubtedly meant to suggest more than that. It’s about more than just the campaign, and about more than just momentum.

For branding in general, and identity design in particular, success depends on a great deal more than just a weekend and a whim, Marissa Mayer notwithstanding. When produced by intelligent, experienced shops like Pentagram, visual design decisions are explicitly mapped to strategic imperatives drawn from extensive, often voluminous, research. The trick is not only to create a visual expression of some often esoteric ideas, but also make it look both fresh and inevitable, like it wasn’t the result of copious data mining. Whether or not Pentagram achieved this for its Democratic campaign clients I’ll leave for others to decide, but what is obvious to those of us who traffic in the techniques of influence and persuasion is that Hillary’s people are evidencing some very definite decisions about the emotional triggers they are looking to activate in the amygdala-driven brains of the voting public.


The evidence is not exactly subtle. But it’s absolutely on-point.

The video itself delivers almost entirely on a powerful emotional driver that can be fairly easy to accomplish in direct relationships, but which is devilishly challenging to achieve in media communications: The Friendship Trigger. This is the foundational emotional trigger, the one without which all the other triggers are much less reliable in their potential to persuade. The core of this trigger is sameness, wherein despite all superficial differences, we agree with one another on some fundamental parallels in our nature; about shared experiences or common values.

Clinton’s announcement video delivers on this emotional trigger almost exclusively. And does so in a uniquely effective way. The method conventionally used in political advertising to evoke the (usually absurd) idea that “I’m just like you” is to show the candidate interacting with the kinds of people with whom they want to be identified. This almost never works to activate the Friendship Trigger because most of these recorded events only serve to make the candidate look even more unusual and set-apart. They’re so conspicuously in the spotlight, so obviously the center of attention even as they’re trying to be “one of the folks.” Who exactly is this similar to except other candidates and celebrities? The other problem with look-at-me-I’m-among-the-people optics is that we, as viewers, are observers, not participants.

Clinton’s 2015 campaign announcement video avoids both of these pitfalls by having the candidate herself alone, in a casual sidewalk setting, speaking directly to us, but echoing a series of similar workaday intentions by regular Americans to move, grow, change, connect, and succeed. The candidate is not merely among us. She is one of us. Or so the campaign hopes we’ll believe.

In her 2008 campaign video – imperiously poised in what appears to be a White House room, check-boxing her credentials – Mrs. Clinton launched her campaign not with the Friendship Trigger but with the Authority Trigger. It backfired (as the Authority Trigger is inclined to do if not properly timed), and by the time she regained a hard-won standing as relatable, it was too late. The momentum had turned decisively in favor of her opponent. Triggers matter.

Now back to the logo. That it’s all about forward is evident even to a child. That it’s so massively bold and unequivocal, without nuance even, has been the source of a lot of the criticism. But I would suggest that the Clinton campaign is being ham-handed like a fox. The forward or future concept addresses what is almost certainly the single biggest liability that Mrs. Clinton faces in her bid for the presidency: that she represents the past. When evaluating the vast mix of elements that combine to create a brand, a hierarchy must be created, and in many cases – certainly in the case of a political campaign in the age of information and social media – the identity design, the logo mark, sits atop the messaging priority pyramid because of its ubiquitous visibility… It will. Be. Everywhere.

The Clinton campaign has chosen forward to the future as their brand essence not just because it’s a tried-and-true political campaign concept, but because it evokes the sharpest (check out how sharp those arrow points are) possible contrast to what is likely to be her greatest political challenge. Hillary launched her campaign with the Friendship Trigger, but her identity design is all about the Contrast Trigger.

MEH Hillary logo