Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The power of words - messaging, the brain and the referendum

When you deliver a great speech, it's not enough to have passion and great delivery, you've also got to have a  great succinct message.  Martin Luther had "A Dream" Margaret Thatcher said "There is no Alternative"; Barak Obama had "Yes we Can".  I could go on and on.

Succinct messages are important in campaigning,  presentations, and media interviews. If a message is less than two seconds we're more likely to remember it.  So who has faired better in the Scottish campaign messaging?  Let's look at it. 

Today I heard on The World at One a number of the Pro Union campaigners still using "Better Together" slogan while they also have "No Thanks", which is apparently inspired by the Quebec referendum in 1995 "non merci" slogan that narrowly beat the Independents.  

The best succinct messages are aspirational - use big picture language that everyone buys in to and can be used to answer all the difficult questions.  "Better Together" has tried to do that.  " No thanks" doesn't manage this quite as well.  The other side have simply got the very memorable and positive YES. 

There is a psychological reason this is important too. Has anyone every said to you  "don't think of a pink elephant" and of course the first thing you do is think of one.  This is because of the way our brain works.  Our subconscious hears only the positive in the message. So positive messages have more power. 

Notice the YES vote  has had no alignment with nationalism, nor have The Irish or the Welsh joined in the debate.  The YES campaign has aligned with Scottish aspiration.  This is after Chris Hoy won six gold medals at the 2012 Olympics, Andy Murray won Wimbledon and more recently Glasgow has hosted a hugely successful Commonwealth Games. Whether these Scots have kept out of the political argument does not take away the Scottish pride that comes with those successes. 

So YES has also been anchored into our minds.  An anchor in the world of the brain means that we associate certain things together.  So you might associate a place with an emotion; a smell with a memory.  Or in Scotlands case Andy Murray's success with Alex Salmond's Saltire waving at his moment of triumph. 

The Chris Hoy stadium during the Commonwealth Games was a constant reminder of his Olympic successes as well as his presence during the Commonwealth Games.  Also seeing Glasgow and Scotland portrayed on the telly so magnificently will have inspired pride; reinforced confidence and encouraged belief.  Aligning all these to the word YES has been the campaign's brilliance.  I'm sure the timings were thought through, in great detail. 

The other reason why YES is so powerful and sales people have known it for years.  If you get people to say yes out loud to two questions they are more likely to say Yes to the third question.  There will be some savvy people who won't but the majority will. 

People gravitate towards positive words and actions.

Consistent messages shows confidence in your messages.  The Union messages have not been as consistent.  They started off negative and have tried to move towards the more positive "better together" and today they seem to be comparing the potential of losing Scotland like a divorce or the end of a relationship.  The strategy seems on the back foot rather on the front.  It's certainly not aspirational or visionary.

However the Union camp is working with a natural human trait - fear of change.  So it's the change argument that has to be stronger for the chances of a Yes vote to succeed. This is probably why the votes are so close together.  

The Yes campaigners however are using visionary language: words like: democratic empowerment;  the power to succeed; for Scots to be on the World Stage and more recently Team Scotland vs Team Westminster.

Visionary language is essential because it helps us "see" the idea.  Seeing the big picture in the language means more people are likely to agree.  We all want more jobs and a prosperous Scotland.  Journalists role is often to pull apart these visionary messages into the details but politicians and campaigners look for the common themes that bind us. 

Notice it's not Team England.  They are playing with the beliefs of Scots that Westminster does not hold their interests at heart but their own.  A belief held by many, although in my experience is not the case.  But perception is nine tenths of the law.  

Talking about words the two adverts that have come out of the different campaigns, show the power of words in action: 

The Union advert which got so much flack for implying women couldn't think politically for themselves

lended themselves to an advert with "Subtitles" or their translations of the messages in the advert This second version translates the advert into a patronising idea of women at home, children's disinterest and a lack of understanding of the politics. 

Compare this with the linguistically ingenious way this advert is done.  Setting a tone and then flipping it on it's head. As a Scot it anchors itself in our Scottish tradition of poetry and story telling. 

There's another thing: timing:  The Yes ad called "My Generation" is one minute 52 seconds long while the Better together one " A woman changes her mind" is two minutes forty long.  Shorter is always better. 

So the messaging has been clever.  It is more challenging for the Better Together team as there are 3 parties that normally work against each other pulling together but they are working with a strong human emotion: fear of change.  

I've just booked my ticket to go up to Scotland for 18th September.  I have no idea who will win.  Both sides have powerful arguments.  What I do know is the messaging from the YES camp is more aspirational, consistent and visionary but will it be enough? We'll find out, I hope in the early hours of 19th September.  I'll be there watching history happen - what ever the outcome. 

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