When I think of the most charismatic and persuasive political leaders in history, Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy would certainly be at the top of the list.
They were masters of communication: whenever they gave speeches, people couldn’t help but hang on their every word.
But what makes a politician so compelling and convincing of who they are and what they stand for?
It’s all about the art of persuasion.
Every politician has their own way influencing their supporters and winning over voters and even opponents.
Here are five strategies that larger-than-life political figures use when they want to persuade people to get on their side.
1) They make sure they’re the ones in control of the narrative
We may not agree with Donald Trump’s politics, but one thing we have to admit is that the former president knows how to handle and take control of the narrative.
Trump is an expert at effectively spinning the criticisms of his opponents in a communication style that caters to his supporters. He counterattacks with ease (even if it is unethical). He also plays up what he perceives to be his political victories.
He also reacts in real-time: he did this constantly on Twitter before he was banned (since the Elon Musk takeover, his account was reinstated, but the former President declined to return)—and then on his own social media channel, TruthSocial.
Another way Trump takes control of the narrative is to show his supporters that he is “one of them,” such as how he makes himself regularly “accessible” at rallies.
At these rallies, his audiences tend to feel as though they are on the same “emotional level” as him.
Another thing Trump does is he is subversive to traditional institutions.
This narrative plays into how his supporters see him: as a man who will challenge the establishment and fight for them. So his supporters see him as someone with solutions to their problems.
2) Communication is king (or queen)
Communication isn’t necessarily about how well-spoken you are as a “wannabe” world leader.
It’s how you tailor the way you talk to those around you.
An exchange Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had with a university student this past April
showed how experienced the PM is in tactfully flipping a conversation that started out as an attack on him.
The young man—who said he was aligned with the right-wing People’s Party of Canada—confronted the PM about a number of political issues that included healthcare, religion, and abortion.
Trudeau also asked the student if he would support a dental program that helps low-income families visit the dentist. The young man admits he’s not “fully into it” but doesn’t know. When Trudeau gently pushes back, the man concedes with “I guess they should.”
Trudeau then informs him that Pierre Poilievre (the leader of the Conservative Party and national opposition) actually voted against that proposal.
The student admits he’s more for the PPC than the Conservatives (it’s important to note that these two parties are pretty related in ideology).
When Trudeau asked why, the man said that it’s “mostly Christian,” and that he’s against “Liberal abortion.”
Trudeau: “OK, do you think women should have the right to choose what happens to their own bodies?”
“Personally no,” the student answers.
Trudeau asks if the young man believes he has a right to choose what happens to women’s bodies.
“Well, I think if they’re sleeping around they shouldn’t be allowed to abort the baby, personally,” he says, calling himself pro-choice before correcting himself and asserting that he’s pro-life.
When probed and pressed further by the prime minister about why he thinks women shouldn’t have rights over their own body, the student says that it’s “their fault they chose to sleep around.”
When Trudeau asks about women who are raped, the man stops recording on his iPhone and tells him that’s where it gets complicated, protesting that it’s a “super specific example.”
“It’s an all too common example,” Trudeau says. “Women get raped all the time and it’s something we have to take seriously.”
When Trudeau asks the young man again if a woman who gets raped should have access to abortion, he says he’s split on it.
After some further back and forth on the topic of abortion, the video ends with Trudeau telling the man who confronted him: “Well, it sounds like you need to do a little more thinking and a little more praying on that as well.”
Trudeau was praised for patiently and tactfully challenging the student’s views. No doubt, the student was looking for a reaction from the PM, but instead, he got “schooled” about the holes in his own beliefs.
When it comes to the power of persuasion, it doesn’t have to be all talk.
Former New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden’s combination of “solace and steel” approach after the two 2019 Christchurch mosque attacks showed how she could effectively bring comfort—as well as a firm hand on effecting change—during a time of crisis.
Arden was very effective at communicating how she was taking care of a country that was hurting—and making sure that something like this had little chance of happening again.
3) They’re not necessarily above name-calling
They call it petty politics for a reason: we know that name-calling is practically a pastime for former President Trump. He does it to his opponents—and frankly to anyone who criticizes him—regularly. They might even be members of his own party.
It’s not just Trump. In South Korea, the name-calling in the 2022 election was relentless. Democratic candidate Lee Jae-myung and Conservative front-runner Yoon Seok-yul faced personal attacks from alleged corruption to resume-faking.
Lee’s party called Yoon a “beast,” a “dictator,” and an “an empty can.” Yoon retaliated by likening Lee to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
“Throughout history, name-calling has been used on the campaign trail to label, define and control the public’s perception of rivals.”
The dirty politics of mudslinging—more formally referred to as negative campaigning—is certainly immature and “dirty” politics, but sadly it can be effective.
Television advertisements from parties across the political spectrum—especially around election time—also make insulting statements about an opponent’s views, values, and policies.
It can put an element of doubt in the minds of people about that person. It might even compel them to buy into a whole new narrative.
4) They command the agenda in a way that taps into the crowd
Skilled politicians know that they cannot satisfy each and every supporter, so they make decisions based on their own predetermined criteria that still has a way of garnering support.
It can be called commanding the agenda.
Political campaign and communications writer Tanvi Patel puts it this way:
Say a voter has a criteria of a candidate about supporting universal healthcare. The politician would take charge of this by letting their agenda rule over it. They say they will raise the minimum wage for all workers, including healthcare organizations.
While this doesn’t exactly respond to what the voter wants, it hints at support towards their beliefs. The “inclusive messaging” is enough of a bit to engender support.
Politicians also use the art of repetition on the campaign trail and at rallies and during speeches that play into the bigger picture. This way no one is left out and people can see enough there to get behind them.
It’s more effective to go general than to zero in on one specific issue. You can put your agenda out as a public one and this can get the most votes or support.
“This portrayal can determine decision criteria, too,” says Patel. “[For example], if a crowd of 1000 people thinks this issue is important, even if I personally don’t, maybe the issue is important.”
5) They understand how the power of partnerships can get people on their side
Last year, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau agreed to launch a dental care program in exchange for support from Jagmeet Singh and his NDP (the New Democratic Party).
In fact, the two parties have a confidence-and-supply deal on a number of issues including pharma-care and childcare.
Forming a coalition arrangement is a proven political strategy when you don’t have a majority government. For instance, the Liberal-NDP arrangement happened due to the fact that Trudeau garnered only a minority government in the 2021 election.
Partnerships help parties work together for shared causes instead of against each other. The benefits are win-win: it can give greater grassroots reach to one party while giving access to more resources for the other.
There aren’t any formal coalitions in the United States but politicians who aren’t running for election can endorse other candidates publicly—and effectively persuade voters.
“This political strategy works especially when the person vouching for a candidate has a vast, trusting following but no direct vested interest in that election,” says Patel. “Weeks after announcing his drop from the elections, Bernie spoke to a group of college students in support of Biden and Harris.”