May 18, 2016
Last night I watched Megyn Kelly’s much-anticipated interview with Donald Trump. Here are my quick reactions in terms of persuasion.
Megyn Kelly was the big winner for the night. Her new show probably had strong ratings and it was well-timed to promote her book release. She also did a great job of connecting with Trump on a personal level. And kudos on her style decisions – the red dress was perfect. You rarely see someone make a whole barrel of lemonade from one lemon, but Kelly is pulling it off. Impressive.
But Trump did well too. He had two important things to accomplish (in my view) and he did.
1. Demonstrate sanity
Voters worry that the dangerous-sounding guy Trump plays on television is real. So Trump successfully showed his sane side in the interview. Everything he said sounded reasonable enough, especially the part where he said he wouldn’t have gotten so far in the campaign without getting ugly. You know that’s true.
Then Trump proved he can modulate his behavior on demand by…modulating his behavior on command. Trump was personable and even a bit humble with Kelly. He turned a professional enemy into what looks like a friend, and he did it right in front of our eyes. Kelly even mentioned that she gave Trump her cellphone number. The two of them got along great, and we got to watch. It all looked genuine to me. No sign of any insanity.
2. Demonstrate respect for women (Kelly)
Trump complimented Kelly on approaching him for the interview. He said he couldn’t have done what she did, which he clarified to mean a compliment for Kelly. Trump put her through nine months of hell and she climbed out of it a winner. Trump respected all of that and showed it.
The funniest part of the interview involved Kelly asking Trump about him calling her a “bimbo” more than once during their enemy phase. Trump briefly tried to dodge the accusation and then unexpectedly pivoted with “Excuse me.”
As usual, Trump lets you interpret his words in whatever way you want. If you think “excuse me” isn’t an apology in this context, you have a good argument. It sure doesn’t sound the same as “I’m sorry.”
On the other hand, asking to be excused is an acknowledgment of a wrong combined with a request to be forgiven. That’s sort of an apology, if you want to see it that way. Let’s call it a Trumpology – neither apology nor non-apology. You can have it any way you like.
Laugh if you will, but Trump does have the “best words.” A real apology would have weakened Trump’s unapologetic brand. But an “excuse me” issued in person, combined with a hint of humility and some genuine professional respect feels…sort of…almost…like an apology? No, definitely not. But, well, maybe?
Some of you will say nothing newsworthy happened in the interview. On the 2D playing field, that’s true. But on the dimension of persuasion, Trump showed us visually – which is the only way that matters – that his campaign personality is a tool, not a sign of insanity.
On one level, not much happened in the Kelly interview. But I’ll bet the people who saw it are less concerned about Trump getting along with foreign leaders. And treating Kelly with sincere respect goes a long way too.
I predict Trump’s favorability with women will start a slow climb from now through November. This will be an inflection point. People need a “story” to use as an excuse to change their minds. In persuasion terms, the Kelly interview provides what I call the “fake because” to do so. It won’t be enough on its own, but if Trump continues to make his case, it will be seen as a turning point.
A third act, if you will.
If you think Megyn Kelly’s dress was red, you should see how many chapters are in my book.