Language Lessons from Donald Trump & Emperor Hirohito

A few weeks ago I was in Japan on holiday, a wide ranging trip that included a short half-day visit to Hiroshima and a longer two-day stay in Nagasaki (a city I would heartily recommend you visit if you get the chance, absolutely lovely place).

Naturally these visits sparked a conversation, within the group I was travelling with, about the manner in which the Second World War ended. I was reminded of some of the points made at that time when listening to Donald Trump’s victory speech on being declared the winner of the 2016 US presidential election.

The Jewel Voice Broadcast

At midday on 15th August 1945 Japanese radio broadcast a recording of a speech by the then Emperor, Hirohito. The intention of the speech was to inform the Japanese people that their country was going to surrender.

For a vast majority of those listening the “Jewel Voice Broadcast” was the first time they'd heard the emperor speak and it was a deeply confusing moment, for Hirohito’s address was delivered using the language and phraseology of court and high politics.

While this method of speaking was common amongst the elite of Japanese society, for most normal Japanese it was deeply confusing and included such classic lines as “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage” and “We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is unsufferable”.

For many, the reality that Japan had surrendered did not become clear until several hours after the broadcast ended. In some cases, several days. The Emperor, ensconced in his bubble, had found himself unable to communicate in a way that would be immediately understood by the vast majority of his own people.

His Majesty, the Heavenly Sovereign and Hirohito.

His Majesty, the Heavenly Sovereign and Hirohito.

The Donald Voice Broadcast

Listening to Donald Trump, I was struck by how his speech was almost attempting to translate between two different modes of speaking English. One of the earliest sections addressed, as is normal in these situations, the need to come together:

“Now it is time for America to bind the wounds of division, have to get together, to all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation I say it is time for us to come together as one united people.”

Listening to this, as opposed to reading it, he uses a significantly different tone of voice for “have to come together”, in contrast to “bind the wounds of division”. It’s almost as if he’s providing a translation for the political-English phrase with the folksy "have to come together".

It seems, to me, that he's acknowledging that the phraseology of the political class is so removed from normal language as to need translation. I’m sure if you Google it you’ll find an audio recording that illustrates the point.

So, your point is …. ?

I’ve not listened to many of Donald Trump’s campaign speeches (or Hilary Clinton’s for that matter) and have no interest in doing so but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if one of the keys to his victory wasn’t what he said but the fact that he could say anything in way that would actually be understood by normal people.

Many of us get trapped into talking the language of our trade, even when we're trying to communicate with important potential customers outside of our industry bubble. It’s language that is obvious to us and which we honestly believe accurately communicates our message but too often the meaning is lost.

I suspect that Donald Trump used language that people understood while Hilary Clinton, who has spent her entire adult life inside the political bubble, was incapable of divorcing herself from the language structures of a small elite.

The lesson here is that it doesn’t always matter how good or bad the content of your message is, if you don’t have access to the language of your audience you’re screwed.