Thursday, November 10, 2016

The US Election: The meaning of your communication is the outcome it gets

No picture in the post this week, and no politics. Just three communication principles applied to the US Election results.

The first principle: matching states (pun unavoidable) creates rapport. Trump matched a mood of discontent and anger that is apparently epidemic throughout most of the states (as in United States). Literally, he won because he matched the state in more states (that's the way the Electoral College works). It's not clear to me that Trump did more than mirror: I haven't seen evidence that he can lead from the state he has matched into a more useful state. But when people looked at him, they saw their own state reflected back. Since states shared are states amplified, he has successfully created a wave of anger and discontent and that wave has carried him into office.

The second principle: repetition creates reality. This is basic to advertising: if we hear something repeatedly, it will stick in our brains and when we are not actively engaging our critical faculty, we will act as though the repeated thing is truth. Trump used this principle to repeat a few key phrases ("crooked Hillary" comes to mind) over and over again. In debates, this made him sound dumb: he wasn't answering the questions or laying out policy: he was repeating playground taunts. But by identifying a fear (matching states) that had already been voiced elsewhere (FBI investigations and Bernie Sanders supporters), he stuck to a script so that script would stick. Reality was irrelevant (I make no claim to know the reality and neither should you - we don't have direct access to the facts). Just as we don't really believe that the right jeans will make us skinny and sexy, we didn't have to 'really believe' the claims for them to sink into the layer that filters our perceptions.

The third principle: The meaning of a communication is the outcome it produces. The meaning of Trump's communication was that he became President. The meaning of Hillary Clinton's communication was that it was complicated (what else can we say about winning the popular vote and losing everything that mattered  - and yes, I just said that the popular vote didn't matter). The meaning of Bernie Sander's communication was also that Trump was elected. Like Trump, he matched discontent and suspicion and his followers were sure that the system was rigged against them. The result is that those ideas were repeated and people acted as if they were true.

You probably don't like the third principle. I often don't like it much either. When I get a result I didn't expect and don't want to own, I struggle with the notion that I had a role in making it happen. Unintended consequences are sometimes painful consequences. When we fail to own them, when we fail to believe that what we communicated had an impact in the world, we also fail to own our ability to create different results.

And if we don't think hard - think with will power - then we will inevitably act as if the strongest states and the most often repeated beliefs are true.

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