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.





Silence is golden

What is the most important part of any speech or presentation? My answer would be – the silence within it. The subject of silence and pausing is an essential part of message design and delivery, but is often overlooked or diminished in importance. A number of things came together recently which highlighted this business of pausing  – one of them being the Presidential nominations and forthcoming election in the US. More on that later.

Our need for pauses

Anybody with a theatre or comedy background would fully appreciate the importance of timing and the dramatic effect of well positioned pauses. A comment made by the Canadian sculptor Paul De Monchaux about Churchill’s war-time speeches (and the way that they were laid out on the page) resonated particularly well with me. He said that he “was struck by Churchill’s awareness of the way in which the shape of the spaces around words can amplify their meaning.”

But there is much more to the power of the pause than “dramatic effect”. This is the fact that as an audience we need silence in which to “unpack” what we have heard, translate words into ideas and meaning, and create memory. As an audience we find it stressful to have to listen to a continuous stream of words – and even if we can follow and understand what we are hearing as we hear it, we will not be able to remember anything unless the stream was broken up with pauses.

The speaker’s problem

The problem that the speaker faces is that the stress – even fear – associated with delivering a presentation will cause him or her to speed up the rate of word delivery and, more importantly, remove any hint of a pause. Often, this will be associated with breathlessness – no time to breathe!

I had the pleasure of running some communications training courses in India last month. One of them comprised eight delegates representing seven different mother tongue languages. In common with all groups I have trained regardless of geography, a number of the delegates experienced an overwhelming pressure to speed up delivery and they recognised it as a “hard to conquer” problem. With some, the shaping of the phrases (probably a reflection of their mother tongue languages) meant also that there was a rising tone at the end of each. This in turn created a breathless leap to the next phrase…. and the next.

The speaker gains too

We did some exercises to build in appropriate pauses of about 3 seconds (this is not easy to do!) and to try and phrase in a way which avoided the rising tone. The key learning for me was that everyone in the room testified to the very significant improvements made. This was not just in the ability of the audience to understand and create memory, it was also about the great enhancement to the credibility and authority of the speakers.

Then there was a Presidential election

Which leads me to politics. It is of course a fact that most politicians are rarely interested in helping audiences understand issues and create memory. But they are generally, at least, concerned to come over and be remembered, as someone with credibility and authority.

Some combine both and I have great respect for them. A characteristic of such orators is that they do – and indeed must – build pauses in to their delivery. I have frequently referred to Obama as a politician who practises this. (There are precious few in UK politics these days.) In his early days as US President I would sometimes listen to his speeches in order to time the embedded pauses – they were usually 2-3 seconds. This is at the lower end of what is needed – 3-4 seconds is more the accepted mark – but they did work well. However, I noticed in a recent broadcast (I cannot remember what it was about – sic!) that he was not pausing nearly so well.  As a result, he came over as less authoritative and perhaps a little superficial.

But when it came to him responding to Todd Akin’s statement about rape, the pauses were, fortunately, back in.  They were still a bit on the short side though, and with an irritating “ummmm” intruding. So, Obama, beware! One of the reasons you won the Presidential mantle was the authority that you exuded – and this came not just from your words but from the silences that enabled us to make sense of them, and of you. So, more pauses please!

It is worth comparing and contrasting with Mitt Romney. From the clips I have seen, he has certainly got himself a “good” speech writer. Good in the sense that the words are well crafted to create a knee-jerk emotional response and the minimum number are used in short phrases to create that effect.  And the pauses have been built in between these short phrases – wait for them to cheer! Romney is still learning though how to be comfortable during a pause – you can see him almost biting his tongue – but  at least there were no “ummmms” that I could discern.

If your view of politics and politicians is that it should be about whipping up emotions – hate, love, disappointment, blind faith and so on, then the Romney style of speech will appeal to you. I know it is only a nomination acceptance speech and perhaps one should not expect more at this stage, but let us hope that there will be time in the coming months for both candidates to argue and evidence their intentions and policies in more considered debate.

What is clear is that even though the men, their politics and their styles are very different, their success in communication relies upon silence as much as words.

So, I do wonder whether the US Presidential election will be won, not on what the candidates say or do, but on the power of their pauses – “the shape of the spaces around words”.