Post-truth and our duty of care

Looking back

Well, my last post to this blog was a week before the famous, or infamous, referendum in June 2016. And my analysis then, although accurate in part (especially about the role of pathos or emotions in the vote) put too much weight upon the role of ethos – the standing and credibility of the speakers. I suppose that the tactic of discrediting “experts” as a group would have eroded the impact of this particular, and normally most important, lever of persuasion.

My June post was a reflection on the paucity of facts to support the referendum decision. Since then, “post-fact” and “post-truth” have become frequently used expressions, any acceptance of which we all should, I believe, find truly alarming.

A duty of care

Every one of us, but especially the Prime Minister and other members of the Government and of Parliament, has a duty of care to the nation and its citizens. This means that we and they should not, by act or omission, do anything which could reasonably be foreseen would cause injury to a neighbour. To exercise this duty demands that we do our homework by searching for facts, forecasts, likely outcomes and balances of probability. This is the essence of “evidence-based policy” much vaunted by some, if not all, politicians and their advisors.


This creates something of a conundrum. In a rapidly changing world and political environment, whatever the best predictions might have been some months ago, it is very possible that the assumptions then deployed might now not hold good and a current policy based upon them might now reasonably be foreseen to be damaging to the nation. And if the Government makes such a discovery, it has a Duty of Care to change course; at the very least to tell the truth to Parliament and the electorate.

The binary world

But, this word truth is a problem in our world which, urged on by some disingenuous politicians and commentators, increasingly adopts a polarised, binary view. Factions are labelled left or right, pro or anti, East or West, there are believers and non-believers, something is either right or wrong, good or bad. And we had to vote to leave or remain! I guess for some things a clear and binary distinction is useful, but I worry a lot about its simplistic over-use.

Theory of Mean

I was (figuratively) thumbing through some materials on my PC when I came across an extract from a book I had read on Ethics. The extract concerned Aristotle’s Theory of Mean. The basic tenet of this is that virtue does not lie at an extreme but sits at a point between two extremes – the mean. The most quoted example takes the concept of “courage”. If asked what the opposite of “courage” is, most people would probably say “cowardice” and vice versa. Actually, the opposite of “cowardice” would be best represented as “recklessness”. “Courage” lies in between those two extremes.

The search for truth

It strikes me that the Theory of Mean has something to offer our concept of truth. Fact and truth are not synonymous. Facts can (and should where they are available) inform an opinion or proposition. What one holds to be a truth is often a distillation of many facts, opinions and propositions. So, perhaps we can use the Theory of Mean as a template or guiding principle, and search for truth within and amongst the cloud of possibilities, rather than assume it is to be found at an extremity, on one side of a binary argument.






EU referendum rhetoric unpicked

Facts, statistics and lies

Much has been said about wanting the facts about the EU leave or stay referendum. But we have a problem here – there really are none of any substance.  The few that may be regarded as facts relevant to the referendum – for instance what it costs the UK to be a member of the EU – have been used in a way which can only be described as disingenuous.  Essentially, all we have is speculation about risks and, occasionally, probability.

So perhaps we should unwind a little and see what is going on in this murky world of political rhetoric.


Rhetoric is a much maligned word. It is the art and craft of persuasion, generally applied to the spoken word. Good deliberative rhetoric involves expressing opinions or assertions (which are necessarily arguable), and then proving their validity with evidence. One of the best political proponent of this during my lifetime has been Paddy Ashdown.

Sophistry is deceitful rhetoric where lies and invention are used instead. Any observer of the EU referendum campaign(s) might well conclude that it is this that makes up a large part of the messaging. Jonathan Freedland’s article in the Guardian 14 May 2016 provides good coverage of the lies and distortions that have been used in the US in the presidential candidate race and over here in the UK on the EU referendum.

The three levers of persuasion

But back to the problem – there are precious few facts. It is worth thinking about the three classical levers of persuasion: logos (the argument, rationale); pathos (the sentiment, emotions); ethos (the bearing or standing of the speaker).


Logos is tricky in this case because of the absence of reliable facts and figures. Other forms of evidence might include logic, deduction, analogy, example, anecdote, quotation, testimony. One cannot win a rational argument by making an assertion and then pretending to prove the point with another even bigger assertion. I say “cannot win” but clearly, the undiscerning and the reckless may well be won over in this way. One of the most powerful forms of evidence is 3rd party (i.e. independent) and witness testimony. In other words, and as an example, we should want to know what the Governor of the Bank of England and the President of the Unites States thinks. To suggest that we should only be allowed to hear from the core mud-slinging combatants in the leave and stay campaigns is to deprive us of the evidence we need to hear and assess.


So, on to pathos. A commentator on Radio 4 on 15 May observed – with some concern – that the decision to vote to stay or leave is being taken at an emotional level. But this is not unusual. As Cicero put it – “For people make many more judgements under the influence of hate or affection or partiality or anger or grief or joy or hope or fear or delusion or some other emotion, than on the basis of the truth or an objective rule…”. It is of course the emotions that both campaigns are attempting to excite – the main one being fear – but in a heady mix of chauvinism and misanthropy and a worrying disregard for the truth.


So how can we make a balanced and thoughtful decision? Let us turn to the final lever of persuasion – ethos – the lever which Aristotle identified as the “most important” in oratory. What it implies is that we are more likely to accept the opinions and arguments of those who we believe are credible, that have authority and a reputation for integrity. In the absence of a clear logos and wishing to avoid making such a monumental decision purely based upon pathos it is I believe the credibility of the people involved in the two opposing campaigns that has the greatest significance. I would include also the ethos of those others outside the campaign teams who choose to make comment on the merits or otherwise of a Brexit.

Of course, when it comes to the vote, I suspect the majority will be swayed by emotion rather than anything else. But given the paucity of facts, I would suggest that the credibility of the speakers will be, and arguably should be, a prime ingredient.

A reflection

I remember talking to an elderly Peer – a cross-bencher in the House of Lords some years ago. We were having lunch in the Palace of Westminster dining room at a time when a number of votes were taking place. At the appropriate times he would excuse himself, go to cast his vote, and return after a few minutes. I asked him how he made his decisions on what appeared to be quite complex matters. He said “I don’t. I just watch who goes which way, and follow the ones I trust – or mistrust the least.”

I suspect that may be what this referendum will ultimately be about. But what a shocking way to make such a momentous decision.




Sales – putting credentials in their right place

Selling – discovering the right perspective – theirs!

Selling is a form of communication. It should, if it is to be successful, draw upon the art of persuasion – rhetoric. But, from my observations of the way in which companies pitch for business, it would seem that there is often a preoccupation with themselves and their products and services rather than with the client and his issues. This can of course seriously detract from the pitch.

This preoccupation frequently starts early in the sales cycle. There will be the internal pressures to push certain products and services – “strategic offers” is sometimes what they are called. Effort will be expended on establishing what the win themes are and how to differentiate from competitors – often based upon out of date views or a misunderstanding of competitors, laced with some self-denial.

By the way, this usually takes place before there has been any detailed analysis of the potential client’s circumstances, issues and concerns. The result is that these themes are often inward focused and can, without continual and objective refreshment during the sales cycle, become completely detached from the prospective client’s real needs. As my friend Joe Binnion put it – we need to think about “buying themes” rather than just “win themes”.

And, does it not make you wince when you see the last section of the proposal or presentation entitled “Why [insert name of bidding company]?”? It is usually followed by crass regurgitation of those old win themes (sic) or a set of supposed differentiators which sound just like everybody else’s. What is transmitted to the potential buyer is lack of empathy, indifference and arrogance. I have never been convinced that these things will help people buy.

Use of credentials

I wanted to touch on just one symptom of this internal focus – the misplaced and over-use of credentials in a pitch. I use a simple mnemonic “QAEC” to help put credentials into context and avoid what I often come across – a situation where their over-use detracts from rather than enhances the power of the presentation. This very simple structure is explained below. It does match perfectly with the “kipper” tool for the design of messages, courtesy of the Rhetorical Company.

A sales presentation is in effect a narrative – a story based upon a number of ideas or points which lead the listeners to an “Ah Hah!” moment when they form a mental impulse or conclusion and are persuaded to action. Let us take just one of those points (bones if you are trained in the “kipper”) in an imaginary narrative.

Identifying the question – Q

The main reason you would make a specific point in a pitch would be to answer a question that you believe the listener might have – the “Q”. For instance, you might have established that the listener is concerned about how quickly an action needs to be taken.

Responding with an answer – A

The answer (“A”) to this might be: “You can’t afford to wait” or “You are running out of time” or “You need to start now”. So this becomes the point you make.

Proving with evidence – E

Any assertion made needs to be proved by evidence (“E”) and it is this that pitching companies often fail to address – leaping instead to telling the audience about how they did a wonderful job for another client in a super-fast way. This is not only irritating to an audience because you are not talking about them, you are not satisfying the basic rules of conversation – that is that conversations are about responding to each other. This also applies in presentations – it’s just that only one side of the conversation is vocalised.

Let us continue the example and take as your point – “You can’t afford to wait”. This should trigger in the listener’s mind a silent question – “Why’s that then?” The next thing you say needs to be evidence – proof of the point you have made. It is clear that citing a credential here does not prove the point. In this case, good evidence might consist of (for example): citing actions taken by competitors; movement in reputation scorings; the time taken to achieve realisable benefits.

Making the credential relevant – C

If you take the idea of a one-sided conversation to the next step, you might imagine that having demonstrated and proved the urgency of action, the silent question in the listener’s mind might be something along the lines of “OK, but will it be possible in that timescale?”. It is at this point that use of a credential (“C”) may be both justified and helpful, since it now provides proof that “it really is possible”.  The credential is though optional – the key components of any point (bone) you make are the point itself and the evidence which proves it.


Credentials do have their place in a sales pitch. But do try and avoid them becoming the main reason for your pitch. If you follow the simple QAEC sequence described for each point you make in your narrative, you will find that where you do use credentials they are an enrichment of the listener’s experience rather than a detraction.

Golden Circle


It is not uncommon for insights drawn from one domain to be startlingly relevant to another. Indeed human creativity can be seen to be geared to making connections between otherwise independent and unconnected ideas. It is what we do in our working memory. So I thought to share with you some connections between Simon Sinek’s insights and the subject of this blog – presentation design and delivery. They might just affect the way you tackle your next presentation.

The Golden Circle

A participant on one of my training courses commented about having been inspired by Simon Sinek’s TED video on what he calls the Golden Circle. Co-incidentally I had downloaded this video a few weeks previously because it resonated so much with my work in the field of leadership and communication. The result was that there were many parallels drawn and references made throughout the course to the subject of the TED (the “Why” question).

I do recommend a viewing of his talk. It is inspiring and its simplicity speaks to us all. One of his mantras is that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”. He argues that companies and people who understand and communicate in this way tend to be the successful ones.


It does seem that many companies are almost exclusively focused on the “what we do” rather than “why we do it” and having spent many years in the Consultancy and IT Services sector it is clear to me that this has led to the rather dull sameness of many companies in this sector when viewed from the outside. They espouse (or say they do) much the same values, have tag-lines which are almost identical and use methods and approaches which are pretty much indistinguishable. You see the result in company brochures, fliers, credential statements and written proposals.

This is not to say that, within companies, smaller groups with more visionary leaders do not exist. They do. But I would suggest that often their pursuit of the “why” question is not understood or even tolerated by managers who have been groomed in the “what” and “how” world, so may not always survive the corporate mill. I have though also seen some very successful and highly motivated teams inside companies – and the distinguishing feature is their sense of purpose (“why”).

As an aside, the public sector is, I believe, much more in tune with the “why we do it” way of thinking. I would suggest that there can be, as a result, something of a tension when functions and responsibilities are moved from the public to the private sector, and the “why” element becomes obscured and effectively replaced by the “what and how”.

I remember a senior executive in the Rail industry saying to me that you could create a contract for anything and that therefore any service could be delivered under a contract. I disagreed with him then, and I would still. Contracts are great for “what” and “how”. But even the much vaunted “outcome based” contracts cannot really deal with “why”.

Relevance to message design

In relating the Golden Circle thinking to message design and presentations, there are many intersections. I mention a few here.

Why am I giving it?

The first question to ask before designing a presentation is to ask the question “Why am I giving it?” Many people asked this might offer “to share knowledge or information”. But it rarely is just that. In the vast majority of cases, when you really think it through, the purpose of a presentation is to affect the future actions of an audience. Otherwise, what is the point?

That future behaviour or action is where your presentation must lead, so it is the starting point in design of your message. Presentations of this sort are fundamentally about persuasion. People are persuaded (and make decisions) on an emotional rather than rational basis. As Simon Sinek points out, decisions are made in the limbic part of the brain.

Why should they listen?

In a business setting, turn your ideas into the form where your audience is, as far as possible, the subject of discourse, not yourself or your company. People like to be talked about; they like their issues to be discussed. They do not like to have to endure generic descriptions of methodologies or technical specifications, unless they have specifically asked for that. See my previous posting on “Forensic delivery”.

An audience will be encouraged (or not) to listen and be attentive within the first few seconds of your presentation. So make sure you have a good “Eye” – and make it about them!

Why is it true?

Assertions do not convince on their own; evidence and examples in presentations are about answering the “Why?” questions. Indeed those of you acquainted with the “Kipper” structure for design of presentations created by Willie Macnair of the Rhetorical Company will know that the left hand side of the “middle” is concerned with points, propositions and ideas. They create (or should) in the audience’s minds one of two responses: “Why is that then?” or “OK, but now prove it….” And that is what the right hand side does with evidence and examples.

Why should they care?

If you are going to engage emotionally with your audience, make it about them. The only really important people are the audience. The presenter is there only for them. As Simon Sinek says about Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, the crowd turning up were not doing it for him – they were doing it for themselves.

Thank you, Simon.

Sophistry? No, just a misunderstanding

Tell them what they want to hear?

I heard an item on the radio a few weeks ago which concerned the Perse School in Cambridge which appears to reward pupils for lying. See jackontheweb page. The idea is to reward misbehaving pupils if they come up with fast and creative excuses for their misdemeanours. An example was given where a boy blamed his lateness on his becoming absorbed reading a particular book: the chosen book was of course a favourite of the teacher to whom the excuse was being given.

A specialist in public speaking suggested that, in the example, initiative had been shown in seeking to understand the audience but he also seemed to agree with a notion that “Telling them what they want to hear” was an admirable thing to do.

It was a light-hearted item, but it has stuck in my mind that what seemed to be being promoted here – if it is not lying – is sophistry.  Sophistry can be defined as “a method of argument that is seemingly plausible though actually invalid and misleading” .

Designing for an audience

In designing messages to persuade people, researching and understanding your audience is of course essential. It enables you to be clear about the behaviour you seek to affect, and to choose anecdotes, examples or pieces of evidence which are meaningful and relevant to that audience. But you would normally be admonished if you set out to deceive by using untruths (lying) or specious or fallacious reasoning (sophistry).

Accepted truths are not always true

The trouble is that we may say untruths believing them to be true. It is not uncommon to hear people refer to these “accepted truths”. Readers of this blog will I am sure be able to point to a myriad of “accepted truths” which particularly irritate them and infect the business or society they work within.

There is one that is often quoted misleadingly in the world of public speaking and rhetoric. It irritates me.  And judging by the number of hits on the internet, there are an awful lot of people as irritated as me from across the globe……..

The myth about non-verbal communication

It is a set of statistics related to “verbal and non-verbal communication”. They are usually stated as…. “Communication is:  7% words,  55% is body language and 38% tone”.  If you are lucky, you might be given the source of the research which gives rise to these statistics – Professor Mehrabian of UCLA. If so you will be able to discover that it is frequently (and normally) misquoted by taking his research conclusions entirely out of context.

Max Atkinson, a well known public speaking and presentation coach commented on the Radio 4 programme “Word of Mouth” some months ago that it should be “so obvious that this is not a correct statement”. He further commented that if you get the words right, the rest by and large should follow.

Putting it in context

Professor Mehrabian himself is alarmed by the frequent misunderstanding and mis-application of the research findings. As he himself says: “Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.”

I rather liked the way that Olivia Mitchell debunks this myth about verbal and non-verbal communication because she takes it a step further by exploring Mehrabian’s method of research. See her excellent post on the subject.

She concludes “So if we limit the formula to the specific conditions of the experiments, it is only applicable if:

  • a speaker is using only one word,
  • their tone of voice is inconsistent with the meaning of the word, and
  • the judgement  being made is about the feelings of the speaker.

In other words, in the real world, Mehrabian’s formula is almost never applicable.

So, full circle

Clearly, none of us would dispute the fact that communication is not limited to the words we use. But to quote the formula as if it were a universal truth is a deception. I must and do believe that the many people in the business of training and coaching in the spoken word who misquote Professor Mehrabian’s formula do so out of ignorance – a misunderstanding rather than sophistry.