Language of Leadership: A lesson from the 2016 Election

Much will be said and written in coming days and years about the biggest presidential election upset the United States has seen since 1948.  Donald J. Trump, candidate is now Donald J. Trump, president elect. He even changed his famous Twitter page on Wednesday to reflect it.

How did it happen? Well, they say hindsight is 20-20 and I, as someone who thought Hillary Clinton would be America’s first female president, think I see much more clearly now.

Election 2016 will go down as the year when the Clinton Campaign discovered they were out of touch with the majority of Americans. Well, as it appears Hillary Clinton will actually win the popular vote, not the majority perhaps, but out of touch with enough Americans that it cost the party the deciding Electoral College vote.

There are a multitude of reasons, of course. But I think the difference in communications styles between the two candidates is one of the main reasons.

  • Hillary Clinton campaigned by the book. Donald Trump tore up the book.
  • Democrats bragged about how much Hillary Clinton studied and prepared for debates. Trump was more seat of the pants.
  • She provided detailed policies that bored the average voter. Trump had short slogans that they remembered: “Make American Great Again.” “Drain the Swamp.”
  • Democrats released lengthy policy papers.  Trump had one pagers and more slogans, “Build the Wall.”
  • Hillary Clinton appeared in photos with high-profile celebrities. Trump had Scott Baio and Stephen Baldwin and tweeted a photo of himself eating a taco bowl from Taco Bell.
  • Democrats had endorsements from major newspapers. Newspapers that many voters view as full of high-brow bullshit. Trump didn’t.
  • Hillary Clinton was measured, disciplined, studied, rehearsed, practiced.  She gave long involved answers.
  • Donald Trump used punchy sentences. Sometimes not even full-sentences. (Like that one-see what I did there?!)

From a communications stand-point, Democrats, long considered the party of unions, minorities, reproductive rights for women and the “little people” had become the party of the college-educated, the self-righteous, the deep-thinkers, the liberal lefties, the out-of-touch. The dreaded “Elite.”

Democrats messaged to the minds and intellect of the American people using facts and logic to bolster the reasons why Hillary Clinton should be elected president. But, excluding the genuine appeal of Michelle Obama, they didn’t use enough heart-felt emotion.

Research shows people make decisions based on emotion first. A-ha, you didn’t need me to tell you about the research part, though, did you? You know it’s true in your heart. And that’s a lot of what happened during this campaign.

Trump appealed to the hurting hearts and the gut of the American people. The weaker the economy, the stronger his vote.

Yes, he said offensive things. But when the Democrats or so-called “liberal,” media-folks pointed those gaffes out, they did so in logical ways – using college-level words like “misogynist” and well, “gaffe.” They simply didn’t connect with the lonely and marginalized rural voters or disaffected middle class or blue-collar workers whose jobs and dreams had disappeared and died.

I remember when my dad died, the neighbors in my hometown of Farmland, Indiana didn’t come over and say, “Hang in there, time will heal, we’ve got a ten-page grieving plan you need to listen to.” They cried too. They said they were sorry.

Democrats underestimated how hurting many of the people were. They were like know-it-all parents to unhappy, frustrated kids. The “eat your vegetables, they’re good for you“ kind of parent. The kind of parents that kids resent. The kind of parents that don’t get it. The kind that are out of touch.

I’m not literally saying that the electorate are children and the president is a parent, of course.  America’s president should be a leader. A leader who can knows how to connect.

With his name emblazoned jets and designer family and his no-teleprompter style of speech, Trump masterfully combined the American dream of attaining prosperity with the common touch.

His communications style touched a chord. He connected. And he will be moving into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in January.

Yes, he used inflammatory language and hopefully he will move away from that to the more statesman-like tones he used during his victory speech and after his first meeting with President Obama.


The challenge and the opportunity, therefore, for Democrats and other would-be leaders, is to take a bit of one of the lessons from Election 2016. Don’t use negative language, of course, but get real. Get human. Use language your audience uses. Try to really focus on your audience’s perspective. What are their hopes, dreams and fears?  Consider those first and then build your message from there. Use your gut. Your heart.

Speak from the perspective of your audience– not above them.   That’s the language of leadership.

Kindly, Gina

I’m so grateful you are reading my essays. I train, consult and speak about the language of leadership. Please click ‘Follow’ (at the top of the page) and reach out to me directly to support you or your organization via LinkedIn, TwitterFacebook and at and

PS. Clearly, Trump must now put his short, pithy messages into action. Workable policy DOES have to happen after January 20, 2017. That remains to be seen. But the lesson about language and connecting with people is what, I believe, largely won him the election… now, don’t shoot the messenger… this one, I mean! Cheers.


4 thoughts on “Language of Leadership: A lesson from the 2016 Election

  1. Well yes, I’ve heard this explanation about how “out of touch” the “liberal” media and governing establishment is. Not sure I buy that this is the real reason for Trump’s rise. Our economy after all is in recovery and while yes, the undereducated and unskilled are not keeping apace with it, it is clear 7 years after the great recession we are in a far better place and real income is rising for ALL sectors, with an unemployment rate that has been halved. One CNN commentator, Van Jones, offered another, just as plausible reason that the ‘rust belt’ left the Democrats, who after all were the party long waging the losing fight to SAVE union jobs and wages for manufacturing. Jones called it “”white lash”, the angry reaction to the courting of Democrats’ traditional base: minorities, the educated, and women, in what they saw as another betrayal in the continuing political alignment of the first African American President’s two terms. How easy is it to blame ‘others’ for the fact manufacturing is chasing lower wages overseas and automation here at home? How easy is it to blame immigrants and minorities for competing with low skilled jobs? How easy is it to blame the first woman to head a major party ticket for reaching out to the same base they see as winning that competition with them, the “other”? I know it’s not ‘politically correct’ to see Trump’s win in racial terms, but remember who is actually co-ran his campaign: Alt Right (white nationalism and anti Semitic fire brand), Steve Bannon. The KKK was among those taking credit for Trump’s win, despite Trump’s denouncement of their endorsement and electioneering on his behalf. Sorry, I cannot join in the growing chorus of Trump being the voice of the forgotten and the Democrats suddenly being the voice of the elite and clueless. We’re watching history repeat itself unfortunately because in my opinion, we’ve really not learned the lessons it has taught us. If we allow hate to grow and fester under the guise of ‘free’ expression and ‘venting’, we risk standing back while extremists win mainstream acceptance. It’s happened before. We were supposed to have learned this lesson.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Aileen, I certainly agree that much of Trump’s simplistic messaging centered around fomenting anger. There are many reasons why he won including cyclical and that he was considered as the outsider. I don’t contend that “messaging” was the only factor, but that Clinton’s campaign did not focus on the rustbelt as well as it should have considering they needed those important “blue states” for the EC. And many there were not inspired by the Dems more complex messaging to turn out. As I stated at the top, “much will be written!” That said, I certainly do hope the globe is not embarking on an inward-facing, xenophobic new order! As you know, I’m way global! 🙂 Hugs- g


  2. Trump was elected because the people are entirely fed up with the establishment both Democrat and Republican they want an outsider and he’s about as outside as they get

    On Nov 10, 2016 3:22 PM, “Gina London’s Little Adventures” wrote:

    > ginalondon posted: “Much will be said and written in coming days and years > about the biggest presidential election upset the United States has seen > since 1948. Donald J. Trump, candidate is now Donald J. Trump, president > elect. He even changed his famous Twitter page on Wed” >

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Mama, for weighing in. As I said at the end of this essay (and to you on the phone).. we shall see how much he can accomplish for the good of the country now that he’s won… open mind – not empty mind! Love you! – G


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