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Brexit referendum: reflections on the campaign

The Brexit referendum campaign will be studied for decades to come for what it tells us about political campaigning in the social media age. There are so many themes and lessons worth exploring from the Brexit referendum that it is a bit overwhelming. The establishment versus the radicals, the young versus the old, the use of language, the missuses of facts and numbers, the lack of positive vision from either side…I could go on. The one that rises to the top today for me is a phenomenon that has been dubbed the ‘post-truth era.

Brexit referendum: post-truth era

In many ways I am a spin-doctor. I help people make clear, understandable, convincing arguments. And I believe in a complicated world, when often the experts in corporations and organisations have lost the ability to speak in plain English, mine is a useful role. But one of the absolute tenets is ‘don’t lie’. (Another is, by the way, don’t personally attack your opponents, stick to the argument.)

What I saw in the referendum was one side putting time and money and thought into clear reasoned honest arguments and the other dismissing every reasoned argument with a flourish. Nick Cohen in the Guardian wrote this weekend a scathing piece about the attitude to truth of the two ex-journalists who led the Brexit campaign, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. I have in the past been impressed with Boris Johnson as a communicator but my admiration waned after he was called before the Treasury select committee in March this year and so much of what he had said during the Brexit campaign was revealed as half-truths by the ‘dry as dust’ chairman Andrew Tyrie.

Brexit referendum: the lies

One lie that stands at the centre of the Brexit campaign was that £350m a week was being sent to the EU. It was disproved repeatedly in articles like this one but it was still being used right up to the end.

The bigger lie, the one that will define the next few years in British politics, is the one about immigration. The Brexit campaign has been fuelled by the public’s desire to ‘take back control of our borders’ and this Newsnight interview with MEP Daniel Hannan shows just how unlikely the ‘leave’ voting public are to get what they think they voted for.

 

The Remain side have been accused of lying too, particularly about their warnings of the economic consequences of ‘what could happen’. I did not agree with everything they said but I can’t find one outright lie that I can point to.

However, perhaps the most sinister exchange of the whole campaign came in a Michael Gove interview with Faisal Islam on Sky News. It was put to Gove that “the leaders of the US, India, China, Australia, every single one of our allies, the Bank of England, the IFS, IMF, the CBI, five former NATO secretary generals and the chief executive of the NHS” were all against Britain’s exit. The response was: “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts”.

Encouraged by such talk, we now have a large proportion of the population who feel they are lied to all the time and are therefore disinclined to believe anything the establishment or mainstream politicians tell them.

Add to this the power of social media where any piece of information that strikes a chord will be repeated and recycled. To quote Jim Murphy in the New Statesman last year ‘in these emotion-fuelled insurgencies, peer-to-peer social media is increasingly the broadcaster of choice’.

And this is the nightmare vision of the post-truth era – outlined in a 2004 book by Ralph Keyes: The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life. The summary states: ‘post truthfulness builds a fragile social edifice based on wariness, it erodes the foundation of trust that underlies any healthy civilization.’ Keyes wrote in 2004 ‘We are perilously close to the point’. I think we can safely say in the UK, in 2016, that point arrived.

 

 

Good speech delivery: get the tone right

Good speech delivery is not so much about the content of what you say. How often have you watched a televised debate between two people – one offering solid facts and figures but no empathy, the other oozing bonhomie backed up by nothing more than some vague platitudes ­– and found yourself involuntarily favouring the latter? One of the key speech delivery tips has to be to practise getting the right tone.

good speech delivery

Tone can matter as much if not more than the facts, numbers and logic of the argument

Good speech delivery: logic and reason are not enough

Facts are the first building-block of a good Key Message. We train clients to choose them carefully, and edit them down to punchy, easily-understood figures which provide a logical, rational basis for the argument you wish to make.  Sadly, logic and reason are sometimes simply not enough.

As every advertiser will tell you, you have to strike the right note.

Good speech delivery: Donald Trump confounds critics, Boris Johnson charms

How else to explain the success of Donald Trump in the Republican primaries! His cavalier approach to the facts has by turns outraged and irritated the political class across the United States. But his tone has resonated with a sizeable chunk of the American public.

Or take London Mayor Boris Johnson, a far more grounded politician than Donald Trump, but one who uses his personality as much as any logical argument to make his case. In their different ways, Johnson and Trump are both using the image of rebel, rather than any reasoned argument, to win over a public fed up with the political “Establishment”.

In both these cases, the facts matter little. It is the impression the speakers create that makes them effective communicators.  They are in effect selling themselves, rather than a message.  It works because people like them, or at least like the idea that they represent.

Personal charm is not something that can be completely manufactured; some people possess it naturally, others do not. But there are some things you can do to make yourself more engaging on screen or loudspeaker; they will not turn a frog into a prince, but they will help you create a bond with your audience, make them feel that they can relate to you.

Good speech delivery: tips to turn on the charm

Whatever the subject, making yourself likeable is a key part of good interview technique. And that usually means accentuating your human side.

  • Sympathy
    Express condolences and/or sympathy, however little the matter has to do with you. This has the effect of “humanising” you and is usually best done at the beginning. For example: “Let me start by acknowledging how hard it must be for people caught up in this dreadful situation…”
  • The Half-Smile
    This usually works better than a frown or artificial expression of sadness, even with the most serious of topics. It is not about making light of the subject, especially where suffering or loss are concerned; it is about making yourself convincing and accessible. Don’t overdo it, especially if public anger is involved.
  • Agree
    This is a bit of a trick: find common ground.  “Ms Smith is absolutely right to say that this situation cannot go on and I agree that the government needs to move quickly. But…” and then disagree as much as you like. It has the effect of making you sound reasonable and almost coopts the other speaker onto your side.
  • Polite
    If you are being interviewed don’t argue with the journalist. Remember, he or she is not the audience, but a means to reach the general public. However rude or annoying the interviewers may be, however much they interrupt or distort, stay calm and excruciatingly polite.  Losing your temper makes you sound weak and petulant and damages your credibility.
  • Thanks
    Always finish a speech with a smile and a “Thank You”. The last impression the viewer or listener will take away is of someone who is happy with the way it went and succeeded in making his or her case.
  • Story
    The human example, the anecdote, can be the most effective part of your argument; the facts and soundbites will be forgotten, but the story you told about John and Mary will be remembered. It makes you sound understanding and caring, relating to real people, not just balance-sheets and policies. We always stress the importance of this in our training and it does a lot to “humanise” you.
  • Voice
    Some of us are blessed with naturally appealing and friendly voices; others sound like an automated message at a call-centre. With a bit of effort you can “warm” up your voice, perhaps by making it a bit deeper, or more resonant, soften the tone. Margaret Thatcher is a famous case of a successful politician who did this.
  • Pause
    All great speech makers learn to pause for dramatic effect. We have a whole article on this coming next week but it is an important element in winning with your audience as the example videos below will demonstrate.

Don’t abandon facts, they are vital part of your armoury as there will be plenty of your audience who need them to be convinced. But always remember that in public speaking of any sort you are selling yourself and the audience has to be made to feel, consciously or sub-consciously that this is a person they want to listen to.

Good speech delivery: three videos worth studying

An example of Donald Trump’s speaking style

Here is a interesting dissection of one of Obama’s most famous speeches.

A man who coaches politicians

Picture credit: CC by Heisenbergmedia

Boris-and-Trump-compilation (1)

Authenticity: holy grail of leadership

We live in an age where ‘authenticity’ is being elevated to near cult status. A combination of factors from the global financial crisis, to social media, to MPs putting the odd duck house on their expenses has propelled us into a feeding frenzy.

What we demand from our leaders is transparency and authenticity.

Politicians, regulators and campaigning groups call for transparency all the time. Transparency about money, transparency about policies and transparency about mistakes.

Authenticity is the anthropomorphic move of transparency into the personal. We assign authenticity to people if we think they are ‘telling it straight’, in other words being transparent.

Authenticity and public tolerance

So great is the desperation for ‘authenticity’, that the public assigns something new – tolerance – to those who project ‘authentic’: Tolerance of mistakes, of stupidity and ‘misspeaks’, tolerance even of bad dressing (and wild hair).

 

Boris-and-Trump-compilation

Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are benefitting from the public appetite for authenticity

For me Donald Trump in the US and Boris Johnson in the UK are the key political figures riding the ‘authenticity’ wave. (Although as we have noted before in this blog, Jeremy Corbyn the leader of the UK Labour party has also benefited from this.) Both Trump and Johnson are hugely popular and both have said and done stupid things that others would never recover from.

Authenticity: Trump and Johnson

In 2004 Boris Johnson was sent to Liverpool by the then Conservative leader Michael Howard to apologise for an offensive article written in the Spectator. Remind yourself here.

He was trashed in a long interview with Eddie Mair for, among other things, lying about an extramarital affair and allegedly offering to provide the address of a journalist to a friend who wanted to duff him up. It’s a long and rather nasty interview in which Johnson keeps his cool remarkably well. The moments I have mentioned are nine 9½ and 10½ minutes in.

 

Here is a list of some of the stupid things Donald trump has said.

Authenticity builds Teflon 

Whether in the end, either of them achieve their political ambition remains to be seen. But those of writing, thinking and advising about issues of PR must take note that the best way to build a layer of Teflon is to come across as ‘authentic’.

 

Photo credits: Donald Trump Creative comms on Flickr. Boris Johnson Creative comms by Andrew Parson iImages on Flickr.