For a man who overcame a childhood stutter, it’s striking that Joe Biden won in part by earning trust through his choice of words.
Biden offers a simple style. Lofty language gave wings to Barack Obama’s vision, but his vice president draws voters close more through accessible examples and raw emotion. His metaphors and exclamations of “malarkey!” don’t pretend at folksiness—they are the exclamations of “folks,” and give color to the credibility of his life story. It’s a hero’s journey of incremental success punctuated by humbling heartbreak and losses. Those experiences matured an over-confident young politician into a soft-hearted and battle-hardened statesman, known as much for careless gaffes as his dogged collaboration.
Biden’s words are worth analyzing because they demonstrate how all smart organizations should choose their words. The Biden-Harris campaign won as much on what it said as how it said it. A consistent, familiar voice offered a measured volume of information, detailed in some contexts and streamlined in others, with a through-line of humility that’s a source of strength. Voice, volume, and vulnerability helped Biden build rapport with voters. He met them where they were, but he welcomed them into the community of his campaign as well.
Community and cult of personality differ in the details. In the ten days leading up to the presidential election, Donald Trump referenced himself—often in the third person—in more than 70 tweets. Big on bluster, short on detail, and cartoonishly self-absorbed, Trump tweeted about what he knows best: himself. His brash style channels the frenzy and fury of supporters and attracts the mockery of detractors, who see a man beholden to ego.
But Biden referenced himself in tweets just as much as Trump did in that final stretch. He reflected on personal experiences and what he’s learned—but also described the collective work of the campaign, communities, and the country. The difference wasn’t the me, but the we: Biden shared credit and rallied support in three times as many tweets as Trump offered. “I believe this election is about who we are as a nation, what we believe—and maybe most importantly—who we want to be. It’s about our essence. It’s about what makes us Americans. It’s that fundamental,” tweeted Biden on October 27. His framing of a shared vision contrasts Trump’s October 31 demand, “For the last 4 years you have seen me fight for you—and now I am relying on YOU to deliver another historic victory for our Country. A vote for me and the Republican Party is a vote for the American Dream! Get out and VOTE!” L’etat, c’est moi, indeed.
People know what to expect with Biden’s consistent voice—and that security nurtures their trust.
Complete sentences convey emotion without resorting to exclamation points. Even in a medium that favors soundbites, the brand doesn’t lose itself. “We’re going to overcome obstacles we face and restore decency in this country,” intoned Biden in one tweet. “We can unite to address the crises facing our nation,” he said in another.
Simple works on Twitter. But often brands need to tell a detailed story. Consumers and citizens want the proof, plans, and the “how” behind big ideas. Trump’s claims lacked this substance: the public still awaits his tax returns, cities yearn for the “trillion-dollar infrastructure plan,” and a sick society awaits an oft-promised replacement for the Affordable Care Act and the vaccine he said was coming by Election Day.
The Biden-Harris transition team serves up detail and empowers citizens with information that varies in volume across channels. Its Twitter accounts streamline details, but its expanding website tells a richer story. Following Biden’s November 7 victory address, the transition website launched to outline the administration’s four initial priorities. COVID-19 is addressed in a seven-point plan that drills down into logistics, financing, and staffing requirements. Biden announced that he would assemble a science and health advisory task force so the virus response plan would be ready by inauguration. Two days later, the site listed their names and titles and he joined them for his first briefing.
Gathering and meeting regularly with experts is how a president makes well-informed decisions—but it requires vulnerability and humility toward gaps in one’s personal expertise. Biden’s interactions on the campaign trail demonstrate interest in experiences of others and the ability to change in the face of new information—and bring others along on that journey.
“It worked in some areas—but it failed in others,” Biden acknowledged in July 2019 about the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, legislation he drafted that led to more aggressive policing of people of color. “I will accept responsibility for where it went right, but I will also accept responsibility for what went wrong,” he said. Personal evolution and new priorities earned Biden increasing trust. In addition to taking responsibility for the bill’s impact, he spoke in support of Black Lives Matter and prioritized racial equity as a pillar of his transition website.
Leaders build trust through vulnerability when they reveal weaknesses and demonstrate efforts to improve. But time and age are no guarantee of evolution. Four decades in public service gave Joe Biden time to establish a record—and learn from his mistakes. Frank words about marriage equality and military deployments revealed someone who took responsibility for his record while reflecting on it to inform different decisions in the future. Ultimately, that vision for the future mattered more to voters than the history that shaped it.
In her speech on November 7, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris urged the crowd, “See what can be, unburdened by what is.” She and Biden ran not on a condemnation of the present or nostalgia for the past, but a vision for the future. Despite gerrymandering, voter suppression, and active voter intimidation, people signed on to that vision and the Biden-Harris ticket. The combination of accessible voice, appropriate volume of detail, and a humble kind of vulnerability earned trust—and ultimately, enough votes to win the election.