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

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

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.

Pathos

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.

Ethos

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.

 

 

 

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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.

Summary

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

Why?

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.

Observation

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.

Forensic delivery – a part of selling

Context and purpose

Having run training courses in communications and coached bid teams for many years, I set up this blog with the intention of passing on insights and tips associated with the design of the spoken word – essentially presentation design and delivery. This particular blog is really intended for people who have attended one of my company’s courses – Gareth Bunn Consulting Limited – (or The Rhetorical Company’s). If you have, you will understand the “kipper” – a tool for the design of messages devised by Willie Macnair and based on classical rhetoric. You will probably also have been introduced to the three main styles of rhetoric, two of which are relevant to this blog – “deliberative” and “forensic”.

I must also thank Willie Macnair for his commentary on my first draft of this piece. This is a summarised version.

Deliberative style

We tend to focus on the “deliberative” style of rhetoric – where the objective is to persuade others to specific future behaviour. This is applicable to most circumstances in business not least to business development – selling.

A complication in business development

Procurement processes though often make the design of presentations extremely difficult. This is partly because the presentation can sometimes be deemed (unhelpfully) to be a part of the bid documentation. In other words the presentation is regarded as, primarily, a visual production rather than aural – a projected document augmented with an opportunity to interrogate! However inappropriate this might be, we have to respect the expectations of a client and its advisors.

Design for the purpose

Different styles of presentation may be effective at different points in the selling process. It is essential therefore that the audience analysis undertaken by the bid team includes and thoroughly assesses the objectives of each interaction or presentation from the perspective of the client. This will determine not just the content and style but also the presenting team.

Typically, the initial stages and the final stages of a procurement will be more orientated to people, personalities and persuasion. This fits well with the deliberative style. However, during the central parts of the procurement there may be a stronger focus on technical content. This may demand more of a “forensic” style to afford the richness in content.

Helping your audience through detail

The spoken word is not great for detail, so it is likely that visual aids – models or diagrams of architectures, processes, spatial layout etc. will be needed to enable understanding. In addition, if your objective is to create long term memory, and bearing in mind the rule of 3, you will need to think creatively about what will help an audience preserve the “shape of things”. Spatial representations – maps and models – are especially useful. Do though bear in mind that “less is more” and an audience can cope with only a limited amount of detail.

You can build in the detail – for example explaining a complex technical solution or describing a multi-stage process – using workshops and walk-through sessions. These can be components of the event designed using the “kipper” approach for team messages.

Forensic design using the “kipper” – some pointers

You may decide to configure an entire “kipper” in forensic style. In this case, I suggest you take on board the following.

  • Ensure the Head is complete. Just as with the deliberative style, it is vital for your audience. The piece which may be different is Structure. Instead of 3 labels, tell and show your audience how they will be able to navigate the component parts of your presentation.
  • The Body of the presentation may not fit the 3-bones structure – there may be a greater number of steps. But it is still important to remind your audience (verbally and visually) where they are at the beginning of each step. Use mini-summaries at the end of each main step.
  • Use visual aids where they will be helpful in explaining concepts. Keep these as simple and uncluttered as possible. Before you show the visual aid, describe the points you are making and let your audience know what they are going to see and what to look for. Note that hand drawn flipcharts or whiteboards, are often a welcome relief to projected slides.
  • Design a handout for the audience to take away and refer to. This is not the same as a simple paper copy of the visual aids. Additional material – narrative and textual description – is most likely to be needed. Design a document!
  • The Tail needs to include a Summary of the kipper. Try and stick to the words and phrases you have used during the presentation. The purpose of the Summary is to remind the audience of the journey they have been through and reassure them it has been complete, believable and relevant – i.e. it “ticks all the boxes”.
  • The Big Idea is much the same as in a deliberative kipper, although one subtle difference is that it may not contain a verb in the imperative. Rather than “So… make your aspirations real” it may be “So, your aspirations made real”. In other words it is a statement of QED – case proven.
  • Build in consolidation. Often the technical or forensic parts of a team message are needed for the acceptance of later deliberation. It is often valuable to ensure that those parts have been assimilated beforehand. So, design in some consolidation in the form of an exercise or a discussion before moving to the next part of the event. Seek confirmation at the end that you have indeed “ticked all the boxes”.