What do Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Bernie Sanders have in common? Contrary to the expectations of political experts, insiders and talk show hosts, they have all experienced an unanticipated level of success in the Presidential campaign. I couldn’t figure it out either. Trump is rude, loud, intentionally offensive, arrogant and a billionaire who inherited more money than most Americans can imagine from his Tycoon father. Bernie Sanders is a self-declared socialist who is super clear that he wants to take money away from those who earn it and redistribute it to those that don’t – as if government is a parent who needs to make decisions for incompetent children (you and me).
In this context, I recently attended a team offsite where a colleague did a short presentation about effective communications that centered around a TED talk by Simon Sinek called “Start with Why.” Here is the youtube video – I encourage you to watch it, it is 18 minutes long.
“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” Sinek talks about the golden circle of communication and decision-making as why, how and what. He makes the case the typical (wrong) approach is to start with what, follow with how and end with why. He also uses several examples – Apple and Martin Luther King among them – to show that these leaders start with “why” and that is what people respond to. He also makes the case that the underlying biology of decision-making helps explain why it works this way.
Trailing Establishment Candidates
As I look at the trailing candidates in this election, I see just what Sinek describes. Bush, Kasich, O’Malley, Christie – take your pick – all of them talk about what they’ll do and how they’ll do it, with only a meager connection to the “why” that matters for voters. Voters are tired of business as usual. Voters think that politicians are out of touch. Voters know both parties worked together to focus more on increasing government scope and reach, rather than being a government of and by the people.
In contrast, when Trump, Carson and Sanders talk about what they’ll do, it sounds crazy! Trump “.. will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall.” Bernie Sanders is going to give away “free” stuff that will cost tax payers $18 trillion. As for Carson, he is a very poor public speaker who often makes mistakes and is lampooned by the press, recently saying, “Putin is a one-horse country : oil and energy.” In spite of this, all three have surprised the establishment and had unexpected levels of success. Why? Maybe because of the “why.”
Nobody could argue that Trump and Sanders appeal to the exact same voters, but I believe they hold a similar appeal to their respective supporters. They paint a vision of the government as no longer representing the will of the people. That resonates. Sanders wants to minimize corporate influence on government – that resonates. Carson points out that Democrats and Republicans had to work together – against the will of the people – to get us to where we are today. That resonates. Trump evokes a vision of America as a strong world leader, getting back to its roots and away from political correctness. That resonates.
The Road Ahead
As election campaign continues, I hope other politicians are watching and learning. Say what you will about “the outsiders,” no matter how this election turns out, they have had an impact. I think it would be great if more politicians recognized that, in the eyes of the people, the “why” matters as much as the “what.”
I also found this article (in nymag) to be great reading, as it profiles conversations with 100 voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.