May, Trump & The Edelman Trust Barometer: The Language of Trust (Part 2)

It has been a fascinating couple of weeks in the language of trust. In my previous post on this topic, I highlighted examples from a variety of politicians as to the language they use and the impact this has on whether we trust them or not. That blog preceded the events of the last two weeks which have included two keynote speeches from Theresa May, the inauguration speech of Donald Trump and the publishing of the 2017 Edelman trust barometer. What have the events of the past week added to our understanding of the language of trust?

First, let us cover the two Brexit speeches of Theresa May – one of these was to European diplomats at Lancaster House and one to business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos. In her Lancaster House speech, I noted the following phrases:-

  • ‘ answer is clear…’
  • ‘but, let me be clear…’
  • ‘I should equally be clear’
  • ‘I must be clear’
  • ‘I’m equally clear’

Unfortunately, according to the Academy of Executive Coaching trust survey, these are all phrases that will immediately arouse suspicion. If Theresa May has to go out of her way so often to reassure us that she is being clear then we will begin to suspect that ‘the lady doth protest too much’ and she will start to appear defensive and insincere. In Theresa May’s situation, this risk is aggravated by her tendency to avoid answering difficult questions by going off at a complete tangent.

Theresa May’s Davos speech was different. There were fewer ‘let me be clears’ but what did creep in was the odd ‘it is my firm belief’ or the odd ‘I am determined to make sure’. When we speak around our kitchen tables we do not say, ‘it is my firm belief that Chelsea will win the league’ or ‘I am determined to make a cup of tea’. We simply say ‘I think Chelsea will win the league’ and ‘I will make a cup of tea’. This simpler, concise language is more likely to generate trust because it makes you sound like one of ‘us’ rather than one of ‘them’.

Interestingly, at the end of his inauguration speech Donald Trump did not say ‘Together we are  determined to make America strong again’ or ‘It is my firm belief that America will be safe again’ , he simply said, ‘we will make America strong again’ and ‘America will be safe again’. These may seem like trivial differences but the language of Trump is simpler and less detached. Similarly, in his inauguration speech, Donald Trump said ‘I will fight for you with every breath in my body and I will never let you down’. He did not say, ‘let me be absolutely clear, it is my firm belief that I will fight for you and, in all honesty, I am determined not to let you down’. These small differences matter in the language of trust. A final language comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration speech is that the phrase ‘America first’ may not be everyone’s idea of good political policy, but in terms of the language of trust it scores very highly because it is short, emotive and focussed specifically on the cares and concerns of his followers.

2017 Edelman trust barometer

This brings us to the other significant ‘trust event’ of the week which, unfortunately, was not as widely reported as either Theresa May or Donald Trump’s speeches – the publication of the 17th Edelman Trust barometer. This annual survey covered 33,000 people across 28 countries and revealed the following shocking conclusions:-

  • Trust in UK business, government and the media has fallen to new record lows. Only 33% of those surveyed trusted business to do the right thing and this figure then falls to 26% for the government and 24% for the media.
  • The opinions of our peers (‘people like us’) are now considered to be far more credible than company CEOs and government officials. 60% would consider peers to be credible versus 37% for CEOs and 29% for government officials
  • There has been a fundamental loss of faith in the western democratic system with 60% of the UK respondents believing that ‘the system is not working for me’, and similar figures recorded in the US (57%), France (72%), Germany (62%) and Italy (72%).

According to Edelman researchers, the impact of such figures has created a ‘perfect storm’ whereby mild societal concerns get fanned by the media echo chamber into ‘full-blown fears and these fears then spur the actions, uprisings and transferal of powers we are seeing in key Western markets’. When it comes to responding to this trust crisis, the Edelman survey has less to say other than to appeal to the worlds of politics, business and media to come together to work out an ‘integrated solution’. However, the survey does have a final piece of advice on the language of trust. It found the following three preferences:-

  • People prefer their leaders to be ‘blunt and outspoken’ (54%) versus ‘diplomatic and polite’ (46%)
  • People prefer their leaders to be ‘spontaneous’ (57%) rather than ‘rehearsed’ (43%)
  • People prefer their leaders to speak about ‘personal experience’ (51%) rather than ‘data’ (49%)

In this sense, we can see that the style of Donald Trump’s language hits the mark. He is often blunt, outspoken, spontaneous and ignorant of the key data and yet he is now the 45th President of the United States. The challenge for more traditional leaders, whether they be in politics, business or the media, is to learn from his style and apply that style to their own political agendas and passions. If this is done, it will take us one step further forward in finding the perfect answer to this perfect storm.

John explores the three pillars and nine habits of trust in his new book, ‘The Trusted Executive’ which has been shortlisted as the CMI book of the year. Available to order now via Amazon UK.

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