The Language of the First Debate

What is really behind the candidates’ statements in the first US Presidential debate of 2016? While analyses have been made about who won, who fell into the other’s trap etc., I was curious clinton-trump-1st-debateabout who was using which Motivation Triggers™ and how effective they were. Were they able to use words that change minds, and if so who’s?

Motivation Triggers™ describe what motivates people, how they think, how they make decisions and how they act. They show up, hidden inside the words people use, and in their behaviour.

Here are the Motivation Triggers™ that our patented software, Libretta®, scientifically measures:

Toward Motivation Trigger™

People who have a Toward Motivation Trigger™ need a goal to be motivated. They want to achieve something and focus on where they are heading.

Away From Motivation Trigger™

When people have an Away From Motivation Trigger™, they easily notice what is wrong or should be prevented and avoided. They are motivated to get away from the things that bother them.

Internal Motivation Trigger™

People who have an Internal Motivation Trigger™ decide for themselves, based on what is important to them. They tend to reject ideas when told what to do.

External Motivation Trigger™

People who have an External Motivation Trigger™ are motivated when they are appreciated, recognized and get feedback. When making decisions they are influenced by outside people or information.

Options Motivation Trigger™

People who have an Options Motivation Trigger™ love having lots of choices and alternatives. They start things and often then start another something else, instead of completing the first activity.

Procedures Motivation Trigger™

People who have a Procedures Motivation Trigger™ prefer to follow a step by step process and often believe there is a “right” way to do things. Without a procedure they may get stuck. When they start something, they are driven to finish it.

Using the transcript from the first presidential debate in 2016 I ran each candidate’s statements, topic by topic through the Libretta® analysis.

Donald Trump used mainly Away From language when he spoke about the following topics:
the economy, trade deals, government regulations and cutting taxes. He recognizes what the issues are without focusing on solutions or goals to be met.

When talking about jobs he uses Toward language mentioning that he wants to “create tremendous jobs”, but this is a relatively rare use of Toward language compared to the number of times he used Away From and Internal language.

This indicates that he is much more concerned with problems, things he does not like and the strategies that he does not approve of. The language he uses resonates with people who are angry and upset about unemployment, and economic disparity. They respond well to someone who matches their level of anger and frustration, which Donald Trump clearly does.

Hillary Clinton, in her opening statement used more Toward and Internal language, talking about what she wanted to achieve and the goals she thought were important.

When criticizing Donald Trump, she used Away From and internal language fairly consistently and, particularly when she attacked his attitudes actions and behaviors. Her main Motivation Trigger™ was Internal – speaking from her point of view about what she thought was important for the country, but not in problem terms (Away From) nor about moving toward goals (Toward).

She finished the evening with Toward and Internal language in her closing statement, again speaking to what would be important for her to achieve during her presidency.

When Hillary Clinton used Away From language it was mostly directed at Donald Trump, and only rarely directed at issues that need to be solved. For her to attract people who respond well to Away From language, she would need to express more of the outrage at the issues that are faced by Americans who have not yet decided to vote for her and talk about how people are suffering.

This is the strategy that Barack Obama used in his “yes we can” speech. With the exception of that tagline the vast majority of his speech was identified to be in away from language.

To attract some of the Donald Trump supporters or the undecided voters, Ms. Clinton might consider switching the direction of her language (she can still say the same messages) from Toward to Away From for these particular audiences. Being selective about the language patterns per audience what would help her attract some of those undecided and some of the weaker Donald Trump supporters.

Let’s see what happens!
Please let me know what you think.
For more information on my Libretta® software: go to




27 thoughts on “The Language of the First Debate

  1. Luca Biotti

    Thanks Shelle.
    It is out of doubt that the linguistic analysis is more than accurate and reveals what’s going on.
    I’m asking myself: what must be true in order to observe these patterns ?
    Eight years ago USA preferred a black man candidate to a white woman one.
    Both of them are aware of the surrounding past history frame and, starting from it, decided how to shape their own campaign in order to be congruent with their personality.
    How strong is the gender model influence in this debate?

  2. Richard

    One of the reasons that Hillary does not use “away from language” is the fact that she has a lot to account for : Benghazi, Clinton foundation, non-secured emails, and that video that keeps showing her laughing about her win against a 12 year-old girl that was raped and beaten by a 41 year old man that she made appear as a girl who wanted that to happen to her.

    She was also put in her place by a congress woman for laughing at what had happened in Benghazi. She is definately trying to downplay her errors.

    She definately does not want to discuss this, so is concentrating more on the future as possible misdirection, and accusing Trump on things that are easier to understand for the public, but are really lame when compared with the destruction of property and lives that the US has generated with its allies, of which Hillary Clinton was part of, and promises to continue once she’s elected.

    As far as Trump, his play on what people think and feel has to progress towards specific solutions that are realistic.

    Neither is fit to represent the most powerful country in the world. I do think that Hillary will win, because in this election, there are more people that will vote against a candidate than for a candidate. Is this really the best that the US can produce to take the helm? And besides, her backers are more powerful than Trump’s.

    On another note, some people believe that the first debate was rigged in the sense that it seemed that Lester Holt was biased positively towards Hillary Clinton. Reading the script seems to indicate that. Observable non verbals : possible use of hand signals (finger to the face when Hillary seemed stressed, and looking for answers) to trigger an intervention from Lester Holt; possible use of a prompter on Hillary’s podium as she seems to look down often as she answers; and the strange man that picked up Hillary’s notes from the podium and give them to Lester Holt after the debate. Raises a few questions.

  3. Penny Tompkins

    What a wonderful example of how Libretta can be used as a precise analytical tool. I’m looking forward to the next debate when I can listen out for the meta-programs you mentioned, and – since I am a strong Clinton supporter – be keeping my fingers crossed for more away-from statements from her! If you haven’t already, I think you should send the Clinton camp some links to your work. It’s brilliant.

    If I could offer Hillary a gift, it would be a place on one of your trainings, Shelle!
    Very much looking forward to more on the use of Libretta in the Presidential campaign.

    I’m also wondering how it could be used in the Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU. Any ideas, anyone?

  4. LOUGHNEY Marie-claude

    Hi Shelle,
    Merci pour cette magnifique analyse, il aurait fallu que tu sois le coach d’Hilary. J’ai regardé moi aussi le débat et j’ai identifier des schémas.
    Merci de nous donner encore une fois la possibilité de progresser.

  5. Andrew Hardman

    Hi Shelle
    How are you doing?
    Intriguing as usual although quite simple really once you are aware of the motivation “codes”. We have experienced the most away-from debate regarding Europe over here in good old Blighty over the past few months. As a generally towards motivated individual it became excruciating to even listen to. These two campaigns would appear to highlight our species’ weakness when it comes to persuasion and influence. As you say Ms Clinton would do well to read your post and I bet Mr Cameron wishes that he had done too!
    Kind regards

  6. Neil Henderson

    Wow, nice work Shelle. This is a really high stakes show, and your exploration helps me get under the skin. You’ve helped me see it’s still at a ‘game-playing’ stage …and it seems to me that Trump appears to be setting the rules.

    The key thing you’ve highlighted for me is how Trump’s language has matched the anger and frustration on the people, so they feel heard. While both candidates have used ‘Away from’ language around problem issues, Clinton does not seem to have matched those upset feelings. Instead she’s gone across to logical thinking, by presenting her goals and ideas (the ‘Toward’ you identified). But are enough angry voters ready to buy ‘her ideas’ yet?

    Trump has carefully avoided detail and stayed ‘General’ about solutions (that could be a good move – the USA is looking for a new General!!). So Clinton is trying to make this a contest of ideas, while Trump is keeping his powder dry and making sure the people feel heard. Let’s keep watching the show, and getting the Libretta insight!

  7. Carol Harris

    Hi Shelle. Hope all is well with you. Do try and make it to Wales on one of your UK visits – you’d be very welcome.

    I like the analysis – have you sent a copy of your book to Hillary Clinton with your conclusions on the ‘debate’? One commentator here said she needs to make herself more ‘likeable’ – but do you think her constant smiling is helpful in that respect or maybe also boosts the ‘towards’ language and detracts from her apparent awareness of certain issues?

  8. Rebecca Klug

    Very interesting Shelle. I watched that whole debate and agree with your findings.
    PLEASE can you approach Hillary and offer to coach her!! She needs this sort of help now. I thought she did really well – I’m sure I would have risen to his taunts! Your guidance and training before the next debates could be the icing on the cake for her performance!

  9. Ivor Randle

    I do think it’s easy to perceive Clinton as a “cold fish”; and perhaps the reason for that is indeed that the only thing that seems to anger her is Donald Trump saying unpleasant things. A really interesting use of LAB profiling, particularly the towards and away mindsets.

  10. Twent, Joachim

    Hi Shelle, I deeply appreciate your sharing of so many insights of our lives.

    Yes your software libretta is programmed very well. To find out a quick result, but you can improve or let’s say enhance to body language 😉 from my point of view Donald Trump is not centered as Mrs. Clinton is. And you are right “time (… election) will tell. Faithful greetings from Moscow Joachim

  11. Jeremy Baker

    Fascinating Shelle.
    Being a Brit, I missed the debate on purpose, as it’s incredibly boring, but have some of the analysis and yours is the most interesting.
    I feel both talk to their core supporters/ users, aka sameness versus the undecided, which I think could be the banana-skin that could either could tread on.
    There’s an advertising guru in the UK called Dave Trott (you may like his books, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and 1+1=3?) who wrote this blog, from the position of an advertiser.

  12. Joanne

    Hi Shelle!

    This is so fascinating! To be able to consciously become aware of what really appears to be driving & motivating both candidates in their race for Presidential election gives a deeper insight into how we as receivers are influenced on an unconscious level; how useful & intriguing. If we are receiving this communication & processing it through our own filters, I’m curious as to what, for each person individually, is the deciding factor on who is elected – is it the unconscious language patterns, the tone, body language, preconceptions, judgements, policies, beliefs, values…etc. a combination of all? And how much weighting might the unconscious language have on this (or any) decision. Very interesting! I’ll certainly be listening more closely to the next debate & will look forward to your next instalment!
    Thank you for this insight Shelle!

  13. arthur

    It would be nice too see what Trump could do to attract more of Hillary’s base. Only 3 paragraphs on Trump and 6 or 7 on Hillary. A lot more focus on Hillary what she could do better than was shared for Trump.

    Trump descriptions seemed lacking in more detailed examples when compared to those given for Hillary.

  14. Helen Walker

    That’s brilliant Shelle. Hugely useful for everyone who wants to learn how they’re getting across and influencing people. I use ILAB Profile every day to help customers get what they’re looking for X

  15. Bill Gilbert

    Interesting analysis. It helps explain my reaction to both candidates. It might also explain why Canadians who voted for a party that ran more of a motivation towards campaign also tend (at least in media reports) to resist Trump?

    I watched the debates on CNN which showed both candidates up close side by side regardless who was speaking. Since body language is a major contributor to communication, I wonder whether body language reinforced or contradicted the actual words for the audience.

  16. Andreas Dorn

    Great analysis, Shelle, and spot on, as usual.

    Away From Language resonates with any person that believes he or she has problems. It just clicks. Isn’t that the basis for building Rapport as well? Match the other parties’ thinking style, or personal preference? Address their needs? I think Trump manages this scarely well. Do you also see that is is much more emotionally driven, while Hillary used to speak in logical sentences, argument based, and rational? It won’t work, I believe, because emotions drive decisions.

    What do you think?

  17. David Klaasen

    Great to see this analysis Shelle. I hope Hilary gets the message and addresses peoples fears, anger and frustrations or he may just win!

  18. Tricia

    Hi Shelle,

    I am tired of the politics but I found your article very interesting. I think I will pay more attention to the language they use in the next debate.


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