There’s been a bit of talk in the news over the past week about Prime Minister Theresa May’s overuse of the phrase ‘strong and stable.’ She seems like a parrot trained to say the phrase on repeat. In every speech, interview or Commons address she says it again and again and again – 12 times in one stump speech in Bolton. Surely this is a sign of the opposite? A campaign of weakness by a woman so stupid she can only remember the simplest of speeches?
Maybe. What’s more likely is that we’re seeing some effective American style persuasion game, courtesy of former Obama/current Tory campaign manager Jim Messina.
In a snap election like this there’s just over a month to campaign. A short window means little time to paint a grand picture of your manifesto in the minds of the voters; especially since most of us spend only a handful of minutes a week thinking about politics. You need to get your core message into their heads as quickly as possible.
There’s a second slogan they’re pushing remarkably well – ‘coalition of chaos.’ This is in reference to talk of collaboration between parties on the left like Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
At this point I pause to remind you that this blog is about my interest in persuasion and not political policy. Policy on the most part matters very little unless it can be communicated persuasively. I won’t be voting for either the Tories or Labour.
These two phrases are examples of masterfully engineered persuasion similar to (yes, you guessed it) Donald Trump’s US Presidential Election victory. Here’s how:
They create confirmation bias.
The more we hear these phrases, the more they filter into our subconscious. Remember when Trump kept calling Clinton Crooked Hillary? This was designed to create confirmation bias. The more stories about her e-mail scandal emerged in drips and drabs through the news, the more they fed into his narrative that Clinton was corrupt. The corruption contrasted with Trump presenting himself as the man who would drain the swamp, another masterful example of persuasion wordplay.
Strong and Stable and Coalition of Chaos work in the same way. Have you noticed lots of tough talk from May on EU negotiations in the news? Expect more of that this month. It’s part of the bigger plan designed to feed our confirmation bias. The more she does it, the more she really does seem strong. The stronger she seems, the greater chance she’ll supposedly succeed with the EU which leads to much needed stability.
The Labour Party has been going through some internal division since Jeremy Corbyn took over. This provides a perfect opportunity for the Tories to create contrast in the same way Trump did with Clinton. When stories emerge of Labour candidates refusing to use the party’s national messaging plan, removing photos of Corbyn from election material and saying you should vote for the party despite the leader it all feeds into the Coalition of Chaos trap. Labour seem more and more like a party in disarray and Corbyn seems like a weak leader.
To be clear – I’m not saying that the Tories are without similar problems. However if the opposition are not setting up the proper confirmation bias traps then any problems they do have won’t be adequately imprinted onto the minds of the voters.
They are easy to remember.
The alliterative quality of both strong and stable and coalition of chaos is no coincidence. Alliteration simply makes phrases easier to remember. We see it all the time in product branding, a few examples being Coca-Cola, Tetley Tea, Kit-Kat and Tic-Tacs.
It doesn’t stop at these two phrases for Theresa. She’s also been saying that the coalition of chaos will lead to drift and division.
On their own these phrases would be useless. There’s a key component that gives them ultimate persuasive power:
Repeat, repeat and repeat.
Persuasive wordplay is worthless unless it’s firmly planted in the brains of the audience. Repetition is key, but only in the shortest, punchiest part of the message. If you start repeating whole sentences the effect becomes less hypnotic and more obvious.
What about Labour’s Persuasion Game?
When people started calling attention to Theresa May’s repetition I was intrigued to see what I thought was the fingerprints of a Master Persuader on the Labour side. This was in the form of some Labour surrogates calling her robotic.
The word robotic reminded me of two things:
- Donald Trump used the same robotic killshot on Carly Fiorina during the Republican Primaries. This created a confirmation trap for her similar to Low Energy Jeb Bush – she did seem a bit stiff in her delivery.
- Chris Christie demolishing Marco Rubio in the Republican Primaries. He called out Rubio repeating the same sentences over and over again, leading to some top quality trolling like this:
A battle of persuasion would make for an interesting election. Robotic is a strong counterattack as May can indeed seem stiff and awkward at times. She’s not repeating whole sentences so it may not undermine her strong and stable rhetoric completely, but visually it’s a perfect match.
It was however just a coincidence, as we’re not seeing Labour hammer her with it hard enough for it to be part of an overall persuasion strategy. If they started relentlessly calling her Robotic Theresa or something similar, just like Trump with Crooked Hillary, it would have a much more devastating effect. Her strong and stable message would be diluted and she’d be forced to change it.
From looking at Labour’s General Election Script for Members it appears they aren’t utilizing the services of any high level persuasion experts.
Labour’s Core Message
Do Labour have a similar message to strong and stable they’re trying to push? From looking through their material it appears to be a variation of for the many not the few. Their ‘top lines’ from the election script are ‘The choice in this election is between a Labour who will build a Britain for the many, and a Conservative Party who stand only for the few.” The document pretty much sticks to the persuasion game that has been failing them for years now: “Vote for us because we’re not the Tories.”
For the many not the few is just that little bit too long and convoluted to have the punch of the Tory slogans. They often squeeze it into larger sentences like the example above, removing the repetition effect which they aren’t using relentlessly enough anyway for such a short campaigning window.
In the digital age this also kills it’s search engine power. Google strong and stable right now and you’ll get plenty of stories about the Tories. Plenty of them are negative, but as Trump has proven that doesn’t really matter. The words themselves are being disseminated across the country.
Google for the many not the few and this appears:
A book about saving capitalism is probably the least likely thing Labour would want showing up.
Finally, and this could just be me, but when I hear the words few and many in the context of British politics this is honestly the first thing that pops into my head:
Conservative Prime Minister and poster boy for strong and stable leadership against a conflict with Europe, Winston Churchill. If I’m making the connection, I can’t be the only one.
Unless there are any significant developments, the Tories are set for another win thanks to their superior persuasion, and to Labour’s persuasive weakness.
Some of you are probably thinking “this stuff doesn’t work on me, only on stupid people.” You should probably read this.
For everyone else, you can learn more by hearing me explain it all in real life.