Contrary to what economists would have us believe, in reality people do not think argumentatively or rationally, but narratively, Steve McKevitt writes. That explains Boris’s appeal to Conservative voters.

First published in July 2019.

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Far from heating up, the race to become the next Conservative Party leader looks increasingly like a procession. Voting in the final phase is now extended to all 160,000 party members, but having already secured the backing of the overwhelming majority of Tory MPs, victory is very much Boris Johnson’s to lose.

Barring a series of unforeseen catastrophes – which one can never rule out where the former foreign secretary is concerned – the bookies’ red hot favourite (currently at 6-1 on) will be installed as the UK’s Prime Minister on 23 July.

From a communications perspective, Boris Johnson’s popularity is interesting. In so many ways, he is not a typical candidate. Rather than seeking publicity he actively avoids media appearances wherever possible, but given his gauche performances in those rare interviews he deigns to conduct, it’s not hard to see why.

It is also much easier to say what he isn’t rather than what he is. Boris is definitely not a conviction politician. He has a well-earned reputation for having played fast and loose with the truth throughout his career and famously equivocated until the last minute over which side to support in the Brexit vote. Arguably the most apposite description of his character is provided by Lord Michael Heseltine: “I think that you have to see Boris as a career map. He works it out, he decides which way the wind is blowing, and that wonderful phrase about a politician - a man who waits to see the way the crowd is running and then dashes in front and says, ‘Follow me’.”

Lord Michael Heseltine, 17 September 2018. | YouTube-ITV/Good Morning Britain

With that in mind perhaps, the fact that Johnson’s current position as the doyenne of the right wing of the Conservative Party is in stark contrast to ‘Boris Johnson’ the erstwhile metropolitan, pro-immigration, pro-European Mayor of London, should not come as too much of a surprise.

In his present incarnation, Boris is undeniably popular with party members and also with the European Research Group (ERG) MPs because of his firm stance on Brexit. However, he has also persuaded moderates, including health secretary Matt Hancock, that he will govern from the centre once he has extricated Britain from the EU.

Where others adopting this strategy might come across as shifty or untrustworthy, for Johnson, it’s proven a key strength. He is effectively a blank canvas onto which people can project whatever they want. His success in this regard is down to the fact that he is an excellent storyteller. Regardless of what you may think about what Boris says, there is no question that he is a brilliant orator. His preferred form of communication is making speeches, which, unusually for a politician, are always entertaining.

Being able to tell a good tale might seem like a rather shallow foundation upon which to build a successful bid to become the next Prime Minister, but it’s actually much more important than we might presume.

Despite outward appearances, political communication is carefully orchestrated (Richard Nixon once claimed that it took him a fortnight to prepare an off-the-cuff speech). Historically, all political communication was constructed using a methodology known as the rational appeal or the message-into-action model. It is also the way in which almost all brand communication was put together during the twentieth century. Creating rational appeals is a straightforward process. Put simply, the aim is to distill complex ideas and arguments into compelling propositions that can be put to the audience. For example, ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ or ‘Labour’s not working’. Over the years, rational appeals have been used to sell everything from soap powder (‘Persil Washes Whiter’) to continued membership of the EU (‘Stronger In Europe’).

Unfortunately, while the process is simple to understand the method not without its shortcomings. Often the proposition just doesn’t cut any ice. Take the Conservative Party’s 2017 General Election campaign. Entitled ‘Forward Together’ it was based on the proposition that Theresa May was a stronger leader than Jeremy Corbyn. This was a response to research which showed that voters perceived strong leadership to be a positive quality, but people just didn’t buy it.

That campaign also highlighted another major drawback with communication based on rational appeals. It requires the audience to use System Two thinking – an effortful, slow and considered way of thinking that becomes more difficult the older we get. Typically tactics involve hammering home key message through a process of repetition – think about how often we heard Theresa May say the phrases ‘Strong and stable government’, ‘Labour’s magic money tree’, or ‘Hard-working families’ – which can quickly become very boring.

Boris Johnson avoids these pitfalls because his political communication is not based on rational appeals at all, but on an entirely different and much more effective methodology called the emotional appeal or the ‘emotion into action’ model.

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In brand communication, the emotional appeal is a fairly recent development emerging during the 1980s. The strengths of this approach lie in the fact that it is focused on the audience rather than the ‘product’. First and foremost, it considers the wants and needs of the target audience, how they actually think, and the way they prefer to receive information.

Which brings us back to Boris’s capabilities as a storyteller. Contrary to what economists would have us believe, in reality people do not think argumentatively or rationally, but narratively. If you think of rational appeal as a lecture, then an emotional appeal is a story. Stories and storytelling are central to achieving a deep understanding of human psychology. Forms of communication that are lecture-based tend to elicit challenging or argumentative responses. Conversely communication with a narrative element tends to encourage vicarious participation on the part of the audience.

Emotional appeals not only influence what people pay attention to but also channel their thoughts and encourage associations, which in turn guide judgements and simplify decision making. They manage to do this because they require only System 1 thinking: an automatic and often unconscious way of thinking that is effortless and demands little or no attention.

And when an emotional appeal comes up against a rational appeal, something interesting happens: the emotional appeal comes out on top, almost every time. In fact, they are so compelling they can even override sensory information.

Does Boris Johnson really mean any of the things he says? Who knows, but it is worth noting that whenever he is challenged with facts and reason, the interviewer tends to look like someone trying to stop a runaway train by throwing wiff-waff balls at it.

Using a rational appeal, I may be able to successfully convince you that my trainers, car and phone offer you the best value for money, but the chances are you will still buy the Adidas, the Audi, and the Apple because they have tremendous emotional appeal. It’s exactly the same for those who use evidence and facts to challenge Johnson’s contention that we can’t ‘have our cake and eat it’. He simply shrugs, says he thinks that we can, which according to the polls, is a notion that has great emotional appeal to Conservative Party members.

How well Boris Johnson’s approach will play out amongst the broader demographic of the UK electorate is difficult to call, but my suspicion is that once he is in power Boris will simply start telling a different story.

It was interesting that the only candidate for Conservative Party leader relying on rational appeals during the televised debates was Rory Stewart. The media seemed to think this marked him out as a maverick. He didn’t win. In fact, his support went down – pause for thought? 

Steve McKevitt, Writer. Visiting Professor of Brand Communication, Leeds Beckett University. Entrepreneur.


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[This piece was first published in PMP Magazine on 4 July 2019. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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