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.