The Brexit Speech Decoded

During a (long) flight delay last Wednesday I watched Theresa May’s Brexit speech. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, there is much we can learn from the PM’s gutsy showing. Here are a few practical handles:

Have a strong opening

It’s true of any speech, keynote or presentation. A strong, and in May’s case patriotic, intro grabs people by the collar and pulls them into the material. The speech began in a most unusual place - the trenches of the Western Front in 1916. Citing an epitaph on a nearby memorial, the PM emphasised that twice in the last century Britons had come together to beat almost impossible odds and build a better future. Everyone could relate.

“The lesson of that remarkable generation is clear: if we come together, there is no limit to what we can achieve. Our future is in our hands. And that is why we are all in this hall today”

“What’s salient is important”

Prof. Robert Cialdini’s latest book “PRE-suasion” sheds light on May’s up front ploy to capture the focus and attention of her audience. “What’s salient is important” writes Cialdini. Research shows that the brain is hardwired to assign undue weight to whatever happens to be salient at the time. How did May do this? In a word: “OPPORTUNITY”. It was emblazoned on her lectern and it appeared behind her in bold, easy to read type. “A communicator who gets an audience to focus on a key element of a message pre-loads it with importance”, writes Cialdini

Humanise data with stories

Another cunning move to build salience was to place 4 Brexit “guarantees” on banners around the venue. “A long term plan for the NHS” was not just another empty promise. “We have directed an extra £394 million every single week to boost the NHS’s effectiveness” said May. But numbers are meaningless on their own. They need context. So May told two personal stories about the one disease we all fear: Cancer. The PM, it turns out, had lost her god-daughter to the disease and Housing Secretary James Brokenshire had had a scrape with the disease just months after opening a Cancer centre at Queen Mary hospital. The moral of the story? The added cash injection would fund a new “Cancer Strategy” that would improve research, early detection and treatment.

Use the Rule of Threes

This age-old writing rule suggests that things that come in threes are inherently more memorable and appealing than other numbers of things. The governing principles of the Conservative Party, said May, could be summed up on three words “Security. Freedom. Opportunity”. This was reinforced by a steady but rousing staccato of closely cropped sentences describing those principles in action. It was heady stuff.

Look for sticky sound-bytes

The human brain is wired for novelty and a deftly crafted phrase is remembered long after the talking is over. Here are a few examples:

  • “We will not outsource our conscience to the Kremlin!”

  • “If we pursue the perfect Brexit, we end up with no Brexit at all”

  • “You may have heard that there is a four-letter word to describe what we Conservatives want to do to your business. It has a single syllable. It is of Anglo-Saxon derivation. It ends in the letter ‘K’. BACK business!”

Use short sentences

The “Flesch–Kincaid” is a series of readability tests that indicate how difficult a piece of language is to understand. I ran May’s speech through an online version of the FK and discovered that a Grade 7 learner could have grasped it. Over 70% of the speech contained sentences containing no more than 14 words and many had fewer than 8. If it's good enough for a politician, it's probably good enough for you.

Theresa May’s speech was superbly crafted. Though disarmingly simple, it showed empathy for her audience and a deep sense of occasion. I hope these few simple guidelines help you next time you have to persuade others.

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