It's the latest entertainment in the this ultra-entertaining election cycle. On Wednesday, Donald Trump told an audience of supporters than Barack Obama was "the founder" of ISIS. In interviews on Thursday, he was invited to clarify that statement. For instance, did he mean that by pulling out of Iraq, the Obama administration created a vacuum where the Islamic State could flourish?
"No, I meant he's the founder of ISIS. I do," Trump insisted. Questioned further, he explained: "the way he got out of Iraq was that, that was the founding of ISIS, OK?"
Predictably, the statement brought a backlash. And, again predictably, he took to Twitter to defend himself: "THEY DON'T GET SARCASM?" he tweeted on Friday, after CNN aired a story about the statements.
Actually, Trump calling Obama "the founder of ISIS" wasn't sarcasm. Here's what sarcasm means, according to Merriam-Webster: "the use of words that mean the opposite of what you really want to say." If that had been sarcasm, Trump would really mean that Obama did a stellar job of combating ISIS.
What Trump said was exaggeration--"to describe something as larger or greater than it really is." And while there's evidence that sarcasm is good for your brain and encourages creativity, exaggeration is a very different matter.
Here's why all of us, Trump included, should quit exaggerating.
1. People may take you at your word.
As Trump discovered, it can be tough for others to distinguish when someone is exaggerating for added effect and when they literally mean what they say. Especially because people so often misuse the word literally. (A city representative once told me that business in his town was "literally exploding.")
2. When you do have something extreme to say, people may not believe you.
Let's say your largest customer is waiting impatiently for you to fill an order and delivery of the supplies you need is delayed for three days. "This could put us out of business!" you tell your employees. Now let's say your warehouse is hit by a flood, all your merchandise is destroyed, and you discover that floods are not covered by your insurance. How will your employees know that this time the threat of closing down is real?
3. If you're not precise, people may not understand you.
What do you hear when someone says something is "a serious possibility?" In a classic CIA essay an analyst discovered that people who are told something is a serious possibility hear everything from a 20 percent probability to an 80 percent probability. In this case, they were talking about a military invasion so the difference was significant. But that's just one example of how not saying exactly what you mean can lead to confusion and misunderstanding.
4. You'll have to take things back. A lot.
Trump had to plead sarcasm just last month after he publicly called on Russia to hack Hillary Clinton's emails and was widely criticized for doing so. "Of course I was being sarcastic," he told Fox News. (Funny maybe, but again not actually sarcastic.)
There's always a risk, when you speak with exaggeration or hyperbole, that people will be angered by what you say, misunderstand it, or take it at face value. That will leave you, like Trump, spending a lot of time talking about how you were misconstrued, rather than about your company or its products. That may or may not work in politics. In business, being pushed off your message is the last thing you want.