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May 2016

Trashing Trump — how ‘The Economist’ does it

Write for Results

In its criticism of Donald Trump, the leader article of the current issue (7-13 May) of The Economist shows us five ways to write with power: a strong opening statement; tricola (the plural of tricolon); varied sentence length; alliteration; starting sentences with And and But.

For fear of infringing copyright, however, I’m afraid I’m not going to reproduce the original text. So you can either buy a copy (they should pay me commission) or take it on trust…

A strong opener with a tricolon and varied sentences

How we open any document is vital, as it sets the tone and expectations for the rest of the communication.

The leader opens with a tricolon — a set of three units of speech in a row — that lists three major achievements of the Republican Party in a 31-word sentence. You might think that’s a turgid way of opening, but what follows is a pointed, 9-word sentence that refers to the next six months of Trump campaigning as not being so ‘glorious’.

A staple of oratory, lists of three have been used for millennia, as they relate to how we process information. We recognise and respond to patterns, and three is the smallest number of elements needed to create a pattern. A well-known tricolon is a remark attributed to Julius Caesar after invading Britain in the 1st century BC: Veni, vidi, vici — ‘I came, I saw, I conquered.’

Alliteration — repeating consonant sounds

As Sam Leith says in You Talkin’ To Me? (Profile Books, 2011) alliteration is a way of wiring words and ideas together.

Alliteration abounds in The Economist leader, when it links the words Trump, triumph and tragedy in one sentence, and refers to the risk of the fractious Republican Party fracturing.

(I guess when you use three alliterations in one sentence you could call it a ‘tricoliteration’. Have I just invented a new rhetorical figure?)

Beginning a sentence with And and But

The cause of much horror, heckling and harrumphing in my writing workshops, you can do this — despite what you had drummed into you at school.

You were probably told: ‘Never begin sentences with a conjunction (a joining word) like And or But.’ But sometimes they’re the perfect way to switch from one topic to another. And you can do that efficiently by using a single word.

Separating the two clauses that And or But would normally join together calls attention to the new sentence created and spikes the reader’s interest.

So The Economist leader lists the reasons that Trump will probably lose this election, but might win the next one. Then — opening a new paragraph with And (shock horror!) — it reminds us that, given Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity, he might just win this time.

As for But, the leader uses it to herald a change in tone and content. After discussing the unlikelihood of Trump becoming President in November, But introduces the idea of this being scant comfort as his nomination as candidate has already divided American society.

Here’s what Webster’s Dictionary of English has to say about But:

Part of the folklore of usage is the belief that there is something wrong in beginning a sentence with ‘But’: many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with ‘But’. If that’s what you learned, unlearn it — there is no stronger word at the start. It announces total contrast with what has gone before, and the reader is primed for the change.

I like that idea: a simple word priming the reader for a change in tone, content or concept. As exemplified by The Economist, week in, week out.


If you’d like to know more about RHETORICA®, my 1-day writing workshop, then book a 15-minute slot to speak to me. Together we can assess the state of your people’s writing skills and I’ll share some new writing tips with you — whether or not we end up working together. (The only thing I ask is that you complete a short questionnaire, to make sure we’re the right fit and that I can help you; hope that’s OK with you. Here’s the link: Speak to you soon.

The Three Word Wars: the War for Trust

Write for Results

Three wars are raging in business: a war for attention, a war for trust and a war for ideas.

If you’re not aware of this, you’re already losing.

The War for Trust

Trusting someone means believing they’re honest and mean us no harm, so that we can deal openly with them; it’s safe to work with them. Confidence and faith are bed fellows of trust: confidence is from the Latin, meaning ‘with faith’, and faith is belief in the unseen. When we trust someone, we don’t demand constant proof that they’re alright.

Millennia ago, when a strange tribe appeared at dawn on the brow of a hill, our default was not to trust them; doing anything else jeopardised our very survival. These days, thankfully, it’s less about life and death, although trusting the wrong people can still hurt us.

How do we build trust through the written word? In two ways: mindset and style.

The trust-forming mindset

Whether you’re writing a blog, article, post, bid or thought leadership piece, you need to adopt a mindset of giving, not getting.

Your aim should be to add as much value as you can to the reader — freely, unconditionally.

You may be thinking ‘But if I do that, I’ll have nothing left to say and they’ll probably run off with my best ideas anyway.’

If you’re an expert in your field, have strong views and confidence in your expertise, you’ll never run out of stuff to say. And, yes, a few readers may nick your ideas and parade them as their own, but my 30-year experience of business tells me that’s rare.

The likelier reader reaction is ‘Wow! If they’re willing to give that much away, how much more do they know?!’

The more value you give your reader, the more they’ll trust you and look out for your words. You’ll become both a source and a destination.

Give vs Get. A simple (but not always easy) shift in mindset.

The trust-forming writing style

One of the biggest hurdles in business/corporate writing is overly formal language. In linguistics this is known as ‘register’, the scale of formality of your writing.

Let’s take ‘money’ as an example.

Synonyms for money put words like dosh, dough, bucks, cheddar, plastic, wonga, lucre, LVs (not luncheon vouchers, but lager vouchers) and spondooliks at the bottom of the register. Words like emolument, remuneration, consideration, legal tender, funds and proceeds sit at the top, while plain English words like pay and cash sit in the middle.

As we move up the register, the words get longer and harder to spell; they also get less concrete and more abstract. We can’t pocket remuneration in the same way that we might trouser a wadge of cash. Abstract concepts demand more processing power from the reader and make them work harder. Formal, high-register words tend to be more solemn and less emotive than their lower register cousins. They’re also more dull. The result is distance between you and your reader.

Mid-register plain English, on the other hand, is vivid, visual, conversational language. In Ronseal terms, it does what it says on the tin. Everyone gets it immediately. We all know what cash is and what it does; it creates a mental image in a way that remuneration doesn’t. Mid-register words have more energy, too: consider the difference between negatively impact and crush, wreck, ruin, hurt, hammer, damage or destroy. Can you hear and feel the difference?

Plain English is connective language; it builds rapport with the reader, brings them in close.

To avoid sounding like a corporate drone or a propagandist, we need to adopt an authentic tone of voice; we need to write more as we speak. Gone are the days of ‘B2B’ or ‘B2C’ copy. Now we’re writing ‘H2H’ — human to human. Sounding like a human being will make your reader feel more connected to you, and connection builds trust.

The bottom-line

Combine a giving mindset, loads of valuable content and an authentic tone of voice to start winning the War for Trust.

Next week: the War for Ideas.

If you’d like to know more about RHETORICA®, my writing workshop that will weaponise your words, then book a 15-minute slot to speak to me. Together we can assess the state of your people’s writing skills and I’ll share some new writing tips with you — whether or not we end up working together. (The only thing I ask is that you complete a short questionnaire, to make sure we’re the right fit and that I can help you; hope that’s OK with you. Here’s the link: Speak to you soon.

And here are the readability stats for this blog: