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Why some politicians win (and others lose)

“Shame on the age and on its principles! The senate is aware of these things; the consul sees them; and yet this man lives. Lives! aye, he comes even into the senate. He takes a part in the public deliberations; he is watching and marking down and checking off for slaughter every individual among us. And we, gallant men that we are, think that we are doing our duty to the republic if we keep out of the way of his frenzied attacks.”

  • Cicero against Catiline – 63BC


Did anything happen with Trump’s wall?

I’m not sure it was ever a serious proposition. The “Wall” was a metaphor. It crystallized how some Americans felt. It was a vivid “word picture” that stuck in peoples’ minds. He used the same trick with ISIS.

Trump didn’t just say,”ISIS is evil.” He said, “They lock people in cages and burn them alive.”

Whatever you make of him, Trump is today’s Picasso of word pictures. It’s why, no matter how badly he’s polling, you can never count out The Donald.

Years went by before I fully understood these persuasive tricks. When I started writing copy I was hung up on using specifics. I’d seek out a specific percentage like: “This could make you a 33.942% profit!”

Techniques like this are all well and good, but don’t get your reader thinking with images – which you need if you’re to persuade with emotion.

In the UK, Labour’s leader, Sir Keir Starmer, had this very problem when debating Boris Johnson in the PMQs.

Starmer – the painfully dull lawyer – pointed to “Bankruptcy under Section 114 Notices.”

“He hummed and hawed,” said Boris. “A great Ox has trod upon his tongue.”

The “Ox” is an ancient metaphor, suggesting bribery. In the days of antiquity, coins were minted with the images of animals – liable to “step on the tongues” of dishonest politicians.

“That image completely trounced the nit-picking pedantry of Sir Keir,” wrote The Spectator. “His advisers should ask themselves which device is more memorable – ‘bankruptcy under Section 114 Notices’ or the caricature of a bull stamping on a man’s tongue.”

Many of today’s modern politicians are heavily influenced by the ancients. Some might not even know it.

These skills go all the way back to Cicero – and no doubt the Greeks before him. When exposing the senator Catiline, Cicero described his enemy’s plot in the present tense: “He is watching and marking down and checking off for slaughter every individual among us.” This vivid word-picture made the threat immediate and deadly.

Or what about that other inimitable populist, Julius Caesar?

Whenever Caesar appeared in Rome, he’d make a point of standing out – with brightly-coloured long-sleeve tunics. (With Trump and Boris it’s the hair.) Caesar was adored for his generosity, conquests and willingness to take on the establishment. He had a way with words, clear and succinct. He didn’t waffle or speak in jargon.

We know Caesar’s most famous words: “Veni, vidi, vici.” But what’s often missed is how staggering those words would have sounded in the first century BC.

“I came, I saw, I conquered.”

Its rhythm, repetition and brevity made the sentence stick in your mind like gum. And Caesar knew to put his words in the proper order. You can almost see him going through the actions in your mind.

This may seem obvious, but it’s amazing how often you see these simple rules broken. You’ll sometimes read a sentence that goes like this: “I attacked the burglar with a knife, which I found in the kitchen drawer.” 

This order is wrong. It disrupts the flow. You’re imagining the attack, then hitting the rewind button back to the kitchen drawer. This breaks the sentence’s visual power.

When you sit to write anything – sales copy, fiction, whatever – your descriptions should play through the reader’s head as if they’re unfolding on a cinema screen.

There are no back-steps in cinema.

All of the motion is forwards.

Caesar knew this. Cicero too. And they lived long before cinema, of course.