With the recent events it is likely you will be hearing a great deal from our politicians over the coming weeks and months. Do you have that experience where you listen to a politician speak, and find you start nodding along, beginning to agree with what they are saying?
You may find it happens even with politicians whose views you are opposed to. And you may be wondering, how do they do that?
Trading on Ambiguity
You may have noticed that politicians frequently use spin and soundbites when they talk. This is a fairly overt method of persuasion. While, many of us are used to spotting it, they also use a much more subtle method.
When we use a word to refer to something, say "tree", each of us will conjure up an image of a tree. Our images of trees may differ from person to person, however we will all pretty much agree whether the thing in front of us with branches and leaves on it, is a tree or not.
Politicans tend to use metaphorical language when they talk. The point about a metaphor is that the meaning is ambiguous in the way that "tree" is not. The meaning we take from a metaphor will each depend on our individual experience, so it will vary from person to person.
Politicians rely on this ambiguity to persuade us.
A recent excellent example of this comes from this snippet of Theresa May's leadership bid speech. footnote#1
The evidence of this need has been known to us for a long time. If you’re born poor, you will die on average nine years earlier than others. If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white. If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately. If you’re a woman, you still earn less than a man. If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s too often not enough help to hand. If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home. These are all burning injustices, and - as I did with the misuse of stop and search and deaths in police custody and modern slavery - I am determined to fight against them.
source Theresa May 30th June 2016
In the first few sentences Theresa sets up a theme of injustice, and gives a broad set of examples. Here in this section she is being specific. She is outlining the 'problem' so that she can give the solution - this is a very common advertising tactic.
Notice firstly that this is designed to provoke an emotion, and she also names it as injustice. Injustice is often experienced as a feeling of anger, and notice how she uses the metaphor 'burning' to ramp up this feeling.
She then delivers the solution - "I am determined to fight against them"
What she invokes here is a military metaphor. Notice the lack of detail. There is no who, what or how. And this is where the metaphor's ambiguity steps in. Because when you hear this phrase, you will automatically fill this missing bit in, based on your experience.
This will almost always involve an emotional response
What does fighting injustice mean to you? How do you feel thinking about injustice? Or thinking about fighting?
The metaphor 'fight against injustice' sounds like a good thing to do. After all, who would disagree with fighting injustice? However, without any detail we do not know what Theresa May means by this metaphor. It doesn't give us any substance about what she is committing to do if she becomes Prime Minister.
So when she talks about fighting injustice, does that mean she is going to go on protest marches? Who is she going to fight? The corporations? Her own Chancellor when he sets a budget? Men? Universities? What is she going to fight them with? The military? The police? The courts?
The other thing influential politicians do when they speak, is that they use emotional inflection in their voices. If you think about popular British leaders they have often displayed strong emotions. Margaret Thatcher often did, Tony Blair did, and so does Cameron.
Theresa May also uses emotion in her leadership bid speech. The relevant section starts at 11:50
The first thing you will notice is there is a long pause before she starts this section. She slows down, and softens her voice tone, while she is talking. Listening, I hear her emoting sadness, and I intuit she is intending to convey empathy or sympathy. As she moves towards the "burning injustice" line she develops a harder and louder edge to her voice, which she continues through to the "determined to fight" line.
Listening carefully her emotional tone appears to be affected rather than experienced. It doesn't quite match the content of her words. My sense in listening to her is that I am not sure she is fully connecting with the words she speaks.
I was also surprised to hear her use sadness when talking about injustice, the most common response is anger, and this would have felt more natural. I would have had a stronger sense that she was connecting to what she was saying.
The reality is that her speech would have been rehearsed, and so her initial emotional reaction to her words would become more muted as she practiced. Also there were some signs she was nervous making the speech, which can make connecting with what you are saying less natural and feel more forced.
The reason that politicians use emotion when they speak, is because we connect with it. We will also experience an emotional reaction in response, and that is what politicians are aiming to achieve,
an emotional decision rather than a rational one
And we are all susceptible, even counsellors who spend many hours listening to people to talk!
How to decode political speak
Some suggestions for things you can do,
title photo by Unsplash