By now you know President Trump announced his winners for the Fake News Awards. You can see them here. Let’s talk about what he got right in terms of persuasion.
The very idea of a Fake News Award is unusual and provocative. That guarantees attention. Getting attention is step one in any persuasion play. Nearly everyone who cares about American politics is aware of the story. I’m no historian, but I doubt any prior president has combined theater and politics so ambitiously and so effectively. President Trump is intentionally and deftly “bringing the show” on this topic and lots of others. If you don’t understand persuasion, you might think he is just being crazy or narcissistic or authoritarian or some other misdiagnosis. But if you know that attention and memory are the primary levers of persuasion, and you see how often he commands both, you might recognize that you are seeing something special here in terms of a talent stack. (A talent stack is a combination of skills that are designed to work well together, such as the collective sub-talents for persuasion, theater, and politics.)
President Trump didn’t need to announce the Fake News Awards ahead of time. He could have simply put together the list and tweeted it any time he wanted. But he knows anticipation controls attention, and it amps up the perceived importance of whatever follows. He primed us. His supporters were salivating for the “good stuff” to come, while his detractors in the anti-Trump press probably hoped they didn’t make the top ten. (Then they did.)
Many of you wonder why he didn’t do a televised awards event. I’m sure the idea was considered. But in my view, that would have been a step too far. The Fake News Awards are, by design, supposed to be humorous without being funny. By that I mean the situation itself is funny. And that’s the perfect “light touch” for a Modern Presidential event. If it had been a televised event with some glitz, you would have wondered if that was a good use of your tax dollars.
President Trump also had what I call the comparison problem. We all hold in our minds a standard for what an awards event should look like. A simple press event would have been disappointing because we would imagine how it could be more like the Golden Globes, and we would reflexively judge it to be underwhelming. And if he matched the production quality of a traditional awards show, critics would say he isn’t focused on the job of governing. A live awards event would have seemed to viewers, because of the comparison problem, either too little or too much. There was no “just right” to be had with that model. But a tweeted list of winners gets the point across without risk. It was the right choice.
One of President Trump’s biggest persuasion challenges is that critics accuse him of being authoritarian when it comes to pushing back at the press. They tell us that only a dictator — or wannabe dictator — tries to muffle a free press. But at the same time, 90% of press coverage of this president is negative, and a shocking percentage of it is inaccurate. The pundits are far worse than the standard “news” professionals, of course, willing to pedal speculation as pre-facts. It’s a legitimate problem for this president, and he wanted to address it without going full-dictator. He needed a light touch that was so obviously not-a-dictator-thing-to-do that critics would have to use pretzel logic to say it was. (Which they are, adding to the humor of the situation.)
When you do a Fake News Award, you’d better have your facts and your sources straight, and you’d better show them. President Trump did that. Had the President simply declared a story to be fake, we might wonder if he was exaggerating or lying. But when you see the story and the correction right in front of you, it’s hard to argue he got any of it wrong. And you know the press was salivating to say he did.
A live awards event also would have provided the anti-Trump press and pundits a visual weapon to use against him. We humans are visual creatures, and we reflexively conflate situations that look similar. If President Trump had held the stage for an hour complaining about the free press, that looks dictatorish no matter how you try to soften it. But a tweet that has nothing but facts and sources gives critics no visual fodder with which to counter-persuade. All they have are the visuals from the fake news stories themselves.
Normally it is good persuasion technique to lead with strong visuals. But in this situation, it would have been a mistake to give the critics easy visual targets.
I’ve taught you about pacing and leading in this blog, and in my book, Win Bigly. The technique involves agreeing with a subject you want to persuade (pacing) until it seems you are both on the same page. Once you have paced, you can lead. In this case, the President listed ten Fake News winners we can clearly see were fake (or at least wrong). Then he added an eleventh item that claims the Russia Collusion story is fake because it has produced no evidence the President was involved in any sort of crime. As you know, a lack of evidence is not proof of innocence. But after reading ten indisputable fake news examples in a row, your mind is primed to lump the eleventh with the first ten. That is solid persuasion technique. (A persuasion rookie might have put the Russia story first on the list because of its relative importance to the presidency.)
Overall, I’d give this an A+ for persuasion technique. President Trump made his points without going over the top, and without giving his critics fodder for counter-persuasion. Considering all the ways this could have gone wrong, it’s impressive how many traps he avoided while hitting his targets. This is the sort of persuasion you only see from a very stable genius.
For more lessons on presidential persuasion, see my book, Win Bigly.