“Whoever is orchestrating the Leave campaign, I have to admit, they’re brilliant,” I said to a friend a few days before the referendum vote. “They understand exactly the rules of persuasion.”
On the side I favoured, the Remain camp was floundering in very much the way the same crew had floundered in the final days of the Scottish Independence referendum before that final intervention – The Vow. They had fallen into the same mistakes: relying on warnings, and apparently plucking apocalyptic figures out of the air.
The Leave camp was also making unfounded promises, lying and misrepresenting the facts. But there was something qualitatively different between the two campaigns, and that was in the structure of the information they imparted.
“The Leave campaign,” I said to my friend, “is in a different league.”
Years before, I had studied persuasion while attending trainings with hypnotist Paul McKenna and his mentor, Dr Richard Bandler, in a widely misunderstood field called NLP, or Neuro-Linguistic Programming.
NLP is a fascinating subject. It studies the structures of human thinking, in order to guide the flow of behavioural responses. It does this through linguistic and non-linguistic communication which may be delivered at an unconscious or semi-conscious level. It therefore bypasses reason.
It has its critics, which divide roughly into two camps. There are those who say it is manipulative and unethical, and the others who say it doesn’t work and is snake oil. As Dr Bandler often points out in interview, both cannot be true. NLP is not unethical in itself, but like any tool, it can be used unethically.
Central to the training we received was the observation that decisions, thoughts and behaviour are dependent on emotional state. Hence, if you are angry with someone, it is very difficult to remember that you love them. If you are in love with someone, it is easier to forgive them; if you like someone, you are more likely to be relaxed with them and trust them, and so on. Reasoning is continually influenced by emotions; not to recognise that is to lay yourself open to all sorts of errors of judgement through other people’s influence.
Understanding how emotion works enables you to get different outcomes from your interactions. For example, after an argument, it is probably a mistake to immediately seek forgiveness. The rage is still too high in the person from whom you are seeking forgiveness. First you must change their state, or wait for their state to change. Then you can get a better result from your appeal.
Understanding the structure of emotions and how they are inter-related is central to one of the key uses of NLP: persuasion. That is why in the hands of a skilled practitioner, NLP is an extremely effective tool when it comes to sales.
This should not come as a surprise. Dr Richard Bandler, the inventor of the term NLP spent years studying and modelling the ways that persuasive salespeople operate. He didn’t invent good sales techniques – he codified them. Through his observations, he came to understand that a salesperson first of all builds a rapport with his audience so they in some way identify with the saleperson. This makes the customer less critical and more trusting of what the salesperson says.
That’s step 1: the gaining of trust through rapport.
Next comes the creation of a “propulsion system” – meaning a way to get someone to take an action, or to change their thinking.
In Richard’s terms, propulsion systems operate quite simply. Firstly you generate a picture or idea of the current situation that’s so awful the subject wants to move away from it. Having built up an emotion of revulsion or disgust, you then simply create its antithesis, a scenario or situation that the subject wants to move towards. Moving towards this happier scenario or idea relieves the revulsion previously built up. It therefore feels like it’s the answer to the problem presented.
This technique can be used for all sorts of things, not just sales. For example, Richard observed that those who kicked an addiction often reported that life had to get so bad for them that they were desperate to change. There it is again: moving away from – moving towards.
Recreating this pattern of thinking deliberately for his clients, Richard laid out the negatives of current behaviour and the extraordinary positives of a new behaviour. Crucially, this was not done as an intellectual exercise. It required the firing up of the emotions to make the change, because psychologists have long known that the will is the least effective part of the psyche to employ if you want to make a change.
In many cases, it works. Bandler found that addicts then committed themselves to new behaviours willingly and with their whole being, rather than making an intellectual decision which they easily broke when they were overwhelmed by an emotion.
Exactly this model was used by the Leave camp. First rapport building, then creating, or describing or presenting a bad situation that was apparently unsolvable was followed by what appeared to be the only solution that would alleviate the bad feeling: leaving the EU. It was, in NLP terms, technically brilliant.
I looked on, thinking that surely our side, the Remain side, must have their own advisers. Cameron, having been involved in political strategy for years, must also have someone who understood the structure of persuasion in the way the Leavers did.
Quite the opposite appeared to be the case.
The Remain camp appeared to have no concept of rapport building. They wheeled out economists and experts who essentially spoke down to the public, alienating those who were of a different class or background.
Then there was Eddie Izzard. If anyone could have been better chosen to alienate conservative-minded voters concerned at the way society had changed over the last few decades, a man in a dress with a pink beret could not have been better chosen. For Leave voters, he represented exactly the sort of moral decay that a friend’s Aunt Beryl summed up in her reasons for leaving: “I just want Britain to be like it was.”
The timbre of the Remain discussion was also very limited, and boiled down to basically half a persuasion strategy.
They repeatedly told people how bad things would be in the future outside of the EU – a good moving away from strategy. But they didn’t tie it together directly with a positive message. Like, for example, the fact that the economy was doing very well and we were about to overtake Germany and become the largest economy in the bloc in the next few years. Those different sides were mentioned, but were not tied together in a persuasive whole. The simple message of wanting to move away from one dark future towards another brighter one was not explicitly presented. Instead, only the down side was emphasised.
The problem with repeating the same strategy over and over again is that it begins to wear thin. Nor is it good enough to say, “to avoid that awful future, you must accept a continuation of this dull present.” It just doesn’t work that way, especially when the other side is offering jam tomorrow, if only you will be brave enough to make that change.
And there is the next part of the NLP persuasion strategy. Reframing objections. The Leavers cleverly reframed the notion of recklessness to bravery. Hence, Leavers weren’t foolhardy, they were intrepid. Once again, a negative was replaced with a positive. In contrast, Remainers were craven cowards afraid to “Take Back Control”. This slogan was thus attached to a positive self image, and became a simple way to encapsulate that feelgood factor in one simple slogan.
In NLP training, you are taught that the unconscious vibrates to such messages and feels better about itself again. This emotional orientation feeds on itself. Unconsciously, you have accepted that this course of action is right. It feels right, after all. Your unconscious can’t help itself. It wants to move towards a happier self image (at least in most cases) and a future associated with good feelings.
The power of the reframe was not understood by the Remain camp. The best David Cameron could do was to present his message in negative terms, saying, “I don’t believe we are quitters.” Really? Well, if you don’t believe that’s what we are, what do you think we actually are? People don’t like being called names. They like to have their egos massaged. Once again, only half the persuasion strategy was employed. No wonder the Leavers started to make real changes in people’s attitudes – not through reason, but through feeling.
Another strategy in persuasion techniques is that of inoculation. This is a technique which pre-empts objections to an argument, and seeks to neutralise it beforehand. This is exactly what happened whenever the Remain camp delivered their warnings for the future. For an NLP-savvy debater, this is the equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. Tie a negative connotation to this warning behaviour and you invalidate it, especially if you have followers already keen to hear your argument, and already beginning to be sold on it.
Hence the repeated use of the terms “Project Fear” (borrowed from the Scottish referendum) and “scaremongering”. Soon, everything the Remainers said was scaremongering. The word was repeated by the Leavers over and over again, until it became anchored in the minds of its audience. It was brilliant. They played on emotions superbly. And even when they themselves stated stupid observations, like the one that said 80 million Turks would be able to move to the UK, the Leavers managed to drown out the counterargument from the Remainers that this too was scaremongering. They’d got there first with that one.
Much has been made of Michael Gove’s dismissive comment that we’ve all heard enough from experts. This, too, was brilliant inoculation and rapport building at the same time. It made Gove look as if he, too, were someone with no respect for education and was a common man. If you think about it, it is quite an extraordinary claim from a man who had been trying for years (by his own definition) to bring value back to education as Education Secretary. It was an extraordinarily dishonest line to take. Yet it worked. It spoke to the masses. “If he says we can ignore experts, well, we bloody well can!”
This is why this debate was so extraordinarily light on facts. The Leave campaign’s manifesto ran to a mere 1293 words, which is less than this article. Leave didn’t need facts. They needed anger and hope harnessed together to make the changes they needed.
So, it was brilliant NLP. I watched the campaign through the gaps in my fingers over my eyes. It was a slowmo car crash. I could see mistake on mistake being made by Remain, and no-one seemed to understand what was going wrong.
After the stomach churning result was delivered, it began to make sense. After the dust settled it became clear that at least one seriously heavy duty NLPer was on the Leave side. Paul McKenna, the Guardian reveals, is a friend of Arron Banks, who bankrolled the Leave.EU campaign. How far he was involved in the campaign is uncertain, though Paul will have at least cast his eye over the campaign material and advised on giving it tweaks.
Some people will complain that the Leave campaign was dishonest by doing this. There is no doubt at all that they were dishonest in many of their claims, but I suspect it wasn’t their specific claims where Paul’s real power came through.
What Leave wanted, and what they achieved, was an emotionally charged debate within which they could covertly make changes in attitudes in some of those who were undecided. As a supreme technician, this is Paul McKenna’s genius. He is just very, very good at what he does.
Whether it was ethical for the Leave camp to employ such tactics over a matter so vital to the future of the country, as opposed to selling someone a pair of shoes, is another matter. I know what I think about it, but this is not a discussion on that aspect of Paul’s brilliance.
The reality of the situation is, however, that the Remain side were out of date. They were using reason against emotion, the equivalent of using old field Howitzers against a side armed with cruise missiles.
And that is why we lost. We were outclassed at every move. Whoever made the decision not to take advice from people who understood the language and structure of persuasion was, in the end, the cause of our downfall.
I suspect that was Cameron, judging by his poor grasp of strategy.
A final thought: one of the major elements taught by Paul and by Richard in their NLP trainings is that such powerful techniques must be applied ethically. There is a practical reason for this advice. An ethical strategy prevents buyer’s remorse. A buyer who genuinely has their needs met doesn’t look up a few months later and think: hey, I was duped!
Whether this applies to this decision over the coming months, remains to be seen. I’m sure there will be much reinforcement of the message going on right now. That, too, is an NLP technique.
So what is the lesson? In the past, ancient kings consulted stargazers and mystics before battle and had spells cast for them. The modern politician must learn to do the same, otherwise he will enter the field at a massive disadvantage. Because people reason on the back of feelings, it’s vital to get their emotions right first, so they are receptive to your message. Once the mood is right, then it is also vital that you understand exactly how you are going to structure and deliver your message. It’s not just a question of getting up and treating it like an amateur schoolboy at an Eton debating society.
The Arcane Arts, then, are back in fashion.