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.




Humanity in communication


People have been giving and receiving presentation skills training for years (actually several millennia) and in that time there have surely been some changes in what might be regarded as a “good” presentation. But I did think that the sort of course which abounded in the 1990s, typically extolling the style adopted by photocopier salespeople, would have disappeared by now.

Apparently not. I was startled to hear from some participants on one of my communications skills courses that they had recently attended a course in which they had been advised that:

  • making mistakes in delivery was never acceptable (because it would appear unprofessional)
  • movement and gesture should be minimised (because it was regarded as distracting or unprofessional)
  • it was not acceptable to refer to a note (because this would show that you were not on top of your subject)

So I thought I should reassure those whose aspirations are not to become completely robotic that humanity really can have a place in the business world.

The components of communication

People are persuaded by other people. True communication is the product of both message and personality of the speaker. One multiplies the other. And of course, the listeners also need pauses in which they can interpret, understand and create memory. The formula that Willie Macnair of the Rhetorical Company coined was: C = M x P + S. C is for Communication, M for Message, P for Personality and S is for Spaces or Silence. I still use it because it is so true.

Let us have a look at what personality means in this context. It is the believability of the speaker, the energy and passion conveyed. It is the cocktail of attributes that makes you want to believe the speaker. To quote from Simon Sinek – “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”. The personality conveys why you can believe the speaker. It embraces both your reputation or ethos and your presence in delivery. This presence is created initially in the Head of the presentation.

As Cicero put it – “… open in such a way as to win the goodwill of the listener and make him receptive and attentive”. So, let us return to the three points of unfortunate guidance quoted above, and ask some questions.


Does being perfect in delivery make you more believable?

No it does not. Being too slick creates mistrust. Losing your way on occasions and getting the odd word wrong, or occasionally struggling to find the right word, all show that you are human and therefore authentic. Let us consider a situation when a team is presenting and one of the speakers loses his or her way. If other members of the team help out and get the speaker back on track, it shows that this really is a team that care for each other as well as the audience. So, please don’t try and be too perfect!


Do we find people with energy boring?

Of course not. Audiences respond well to energy and excitement generated by a speaker. This will be transmitted by natural movement and gesture. It stands to reason that constraining movement and gesture will undermine the natural transmission of personality. What a waste!

Different people use different amounts of physical movement. So, if you are a relatively static person, forced gestures will appear exactly that – forced and untrue. If you tend to move or gesture a lot then this is who you are and the person the audience wants to see. So, be true to yourself.


Does using a note suggest you are ignorant or incompetent?

No. Many public speakers use notes, and sometimes autocues. There is nothing wrong with preparing and using a note, providing the speaker does not disengage from the audience and start to read from the note. Engagement – eye contact and shoulder movement – is essential in involving your audience.

I find it ironic that the people who are critical of the use of notes are often people who will display slide after slide of PowerPoint and read what is on the slides. In other words, they are using the projection as their own note. Now that is an odd behaviour!

Make sure that your note – the paper on which it is written – is not a distraction to your audience. Keep it small or leave it on a table and move over to it only when you need to. If you are using a prepared speech text, the sequence to adopt in delivery should be: read and memorise selection, re-engage with audience, pause, speak the words, pause, refer to note, read and memorise and so on. I have to admit though, this is extremely hard to do!

Referring occasionally to a note compliments the audience because the speaker has taken the trouble to prepare their talk. In addition, referring back to a note when quoting evidence – a fact or figure or quotation – shows that you want to get it right. In other words you will be much more believable as a result of your reference to the note.


The word professional is often used as an adjective to aspire to. I am not quite sure what people mean by it. Certainly, it should address ethics, beliefs and attitudes (the Why).  But please let us not interpret the word in a way which would mean we veer towards being over-controlled, inauthentic, or boring. People are persuaded by people. We are, after all, human. So let humanity in ….. let humanity win.