Win Bigly Book Review

How to become a master persuader

May 11, 2024

If you’ve never read a book on persuasion Scott Adams’ book Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World where Facts don’t Matter is a great place to start. And you should be reading books on persuasion, all communication is persuasion. Adams writes, “If you learn only the tools of communication—the rules of grammar, for example—and you don’t learn persuasion, your writing will be weak or, worse, you will make an enormous persuasion mistake and not know it.” (page 81) Even if the purpose of your communication is just to relay facts you want to have some level of persuasion skill to convince those you are communicating with that your facts or accurate and you want to persuade people that you are a trustworthy source (this is one of the reasons why I started posting on Substack).

I know that some of you, my regular readers, have blogs where you post some writing of your own. I’ve read some of your work and I know you’d benefit from reading this book because I’ve seen some of you make the kind of enormous persuasion mistakes that Adams points out in this book and corrects. (To be fair I’ve probably made similar mistakes in my years of doing this) Your writing will improve if you read and apply the teachings of this book.

The improper use of analogies is one of these mistakes. Analogies are not arguments and should not be used in debates. Adams writes, “Analogies are not logic, and they are not relevant facts. An analogy is literally just two things that remind you of each other on at least one dimension.” (page 58) Using an analogy in a debate will just derail the conversation, you’ll go from debating the issue to nitpicking the analogy and you’ll look like a fool. A person who has facts and logic won’t use an analogy, Adams tells us, “There’s a reason your plumber never describes the source of your leak with an analogy.” (page 58)

This of course doesn’t mean we should never use analogies, they are still a powerful tool when used properly. Analogies are great for explaining a new concept for the first time. Analogies take something a learner is unfamiliar with and compares them to something which they are familiar. A good analogy used at the right time will create a powerful anchor in a person’s brain and they will be reminded of that analogy often as they learn more about whatever topic you are teaching. Donald Trump is often compared to Hitler, for people familiar with Trump this analogy is ridiculous, but someone whose first introduction to Trump was the Hitler analogy (or something similar) that comparison is stuck deep in their brain.

Speaking of Trump, the book uses his 2016 campaign as a kind of case study into the art of persuasion. Adams was one of the first people to predict that Trump would win the election because he saw Trump’s amazing persuasion skill. He tells us that Trump is a master persuader, possibly the best one alive. Adams claims that Trump won because he is so good at persuasion which is much more important than whatever policies Trump was pushing. Adams even says that if Trump had run as a Democrat with all of Bernie Sanders’ policies he still would have won the election.

So naturally the book talks about Trump quite a bit, but only as it pertains to his persuasion skill. The book doesn’t try to convince you of Trump’s policies and it doesn’t try to make you vote for him. Adams himself disagrees with most of Trump’s positions and has never claimed to be politically conservative. The book only analyzes Trump’s persuasion techniques, his major persuasion wins and his major persuasion losses up to early 2017 when Adams wrote the book. Trump is of course still in the news but I’d say most if not all of the book has aged quite well.

Trump’s nicknames were a huge part of his campaign and a great example of Trump’s persusasive power. Jeb Bush’s campaign died the moment Trump started calling him Low-Energy Jeb it was a linguistic kill shot and amazing to watch. As the election season went on Trump continued giving his opponents nicknames like this Lil Marco, Lyin’ Ted and of course Crooked Hillary.

Scott Adams tells us there were two main components to the effectiveness of these insults. Understanding why these nicknames worked so well has helped me see the genius in some of Trumps more recent ones like Sleepy Joe and Ron DeSanctimonious. I wasn’t a big fan of either of these when Trump first started using them but now I see they are perfect.

First the insults were fresh. The adjectives he used were unusual in politics. Jeb Bush was likely the first and last politician ever to be described as “low-energy.” Plenty of politicians have been accused of lying but Trump didn’t call Ted Cruz “lying Ted” he insisted it was “lyin’ Ted” freshening the word up. If you want your ideas to stick describe them in a unique way.

The other thing that made the nicknames so effective was that they all had a visual component to them. Jeb Bush looked tired. Marco Rubio is small compared to Trump. Ted Cruz looks a bit shifty. And Hillary Clinton doesn’t walk straight. Adams tells us that visual persuasion is among the most effective forms of it. If you want to up your persuasion game use visual words so that people can picture your arguments, but don’t be so descriptive as to paint the picture for them. The border wall was another great use of visual persuasion, everyone can picture a giant wall and Trump never described it in a lot of detail which let people form their own image of it.

The wall was also an example of exaggeration, annother one of Trump’s persuasion techniques. Exaggeration plays into what Adams calls the Intentional Wrongness Play, he lays it out like this:

  1. Make a claim that is directionally accurate but has a big exaggeration or factual error in it.

  2. Wait for people to notice the exaggeration or error and spend endless hours talking about how wrong it is.

  3. When you dedicate focus and energy to an idea, you remember it. And the things that have the most mental impact on you will irrationally seem as thought they are high in priority, even if they are not. That’s persuasion.

Trump knew that building a literal wall across the entire US-Mexico border was ridiculous but that didn’t stop him from insisting the wall needed built. By doing this he caused people to talk and think about the border crisis a lot more than they otherwise would have and that made them realize how important that issue was. By doing this Trump positioned himself as the person most serious about fixing the problem.

Trump didn’t actually plan on building the wall as most people pictured it, he explained his more realistic plan (the one he partially executed) a few times. The wall was simply a persuasion tool. Remember facts don’t matter, persuasion is more important. In the first paragraph of this article I made the claim that all communication is persuasion, this isn’t factual, there isn’t much persuasion involved when you are telling someone church starts at ten. But saying “most communication is persuasion” is a lot less persuasive than saying “all communication is persuasion.” If you want to be persuasive strive for directional accuracy rather than factual accuracy. Once you have convinced people you can start ironing out the facts, but until then stay out of the weeds. Facts don’t matter.

Of course people challenging your position will always try to pull you down into the weeds, Adams proposes what he calls The High-Ground Maneuver to counter this. He defines this as, “a persuasion method that involves elevating a debate from the details on which people disagree to a higher concept on which everyone agrees.” (page 28) This maneuver is is something that you don’t see very often because very few people are good enough at persuasion to use it. Learning this trick will set you apart from most people.

Adams used an example from Steve Jobs to highlight The High-Ground Maneuver. The iPhone 4 had an issue where it would drop calls when held in a certain way and at a press conference addressing the subject rather than apologizing for the failure Jobs said, “We’re not perfect. Phones are not perfect. We all know that. But we want to make our users happy.” Most CEOs would have apologized in this situation making them look weak and their products inferior. Jobs used The High-Ground Maneuver to shift the focus away from the iPhone and highlight the fact that there is no perfect phone but they are trying to get there.

Often times opportunities to use The High-Ground Maneuver are times like this where an apology is expected. Trump’s Rosie O’Donnell moment was one of these, but not all opportunities look like that.

Sometimes an opportunity for The High-Ground Maneuver would be one where most people would call their opponent a hypocrite. People think calling out hypocrisy is good persuasion but it’s not. Adams explains that it, “can never be terribly persuasive to the viewer. The problem is it frames both parties as naughty children. There are no winners in that framing.” (page 101)

Adams gives us a hypothetical scenario with pundit 1 and pundit 2 from different political parties debating an issue. If pundit 1 says pundit 2’s party didn’t do a very good job managing an issue and pundit 2 responds by saying pundit 1’s party didn’t do a good job either (calling pundit 1 a hypocrite) then both pundit 1 and 2 look weak and whiny. An observer wouldn’t be able to tell which was better.

If pundit 2 had instead said something along the lines of, “Yes, we’ve failed in the past but we’ve learned from our mistakes and know how to handle the problem better,” pundit 2 would look strong compared to pundit 1. This is the power of The High-Ground Maneuver. Don’t waste time calling out hypocrisy.

There are of course many other scenarios where The High-Ground Maneuver could be employed and many other persuasion tactics that Adams gets into here but I don’t have time to get into all of those, and that wouldn’t be fair to you either. You should buy this book and read it. The book is written in a way that it is entertaining and easy to read. Of course it isn’t the best book on persuasion out there but it might be the best persuasion book for someone who has never read a persuasion book.

You should be reading books about persuasion. Remember all communication is persuasion, you need to get better at it.