What our leaders have to learn about the art of persuasion


When trying to get the public on side, ministers should remember patriotism is the basis of progress.

When Matt Hancock told young people not to kill their grandmothers I thought back, as I often have during the Covid-19 crisis, to Chernobyl (the HBO series). There is a scene in it which anyone interested in political communication should study. It takes place a few days after the reactor exploded, when the nature of the catastrophe is still revealing itself.

Horrific as the explosion was, the scientists have realised that things may be about to get a lot worse. Water thrown at the reactor by firefighters has collected underneath the core; if it combines with the melting nuclear fuel, a thermal explosion will result, killing millions. The water must be cleared out urgently – but whoever does it will expose themselves to doses of nuclear radiation likely to prove fatal.

Valery Legasov, the scientist tasked with mitigating the disaster, rises to address a room of workers. He is watched by Boris Shcherbina, the dour party official sent to oversee him. They need three volunteers. Legasov explains the task and says the volunteers will receive a yearly stipend of 400 roubles. He is met with stony silence; the men know this is dangerous, and they won’t be bought.

Then Shcherbina gets to his feet. “You’ll do it because it must be done. You’ll do it because if you don’t millions will die. This is what has always set our people apart: a thousand years of sacrifice in our veins.” One after the other, men stand up.

The scene is a short masterclass in Aristotle’s modes of persuasion, which the Greek philosopher expounded in his treatise on Rhetoric around the fourth century BCE.

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Legasov relies on logos – the appeal to reason (in this case, self-interest). In turn, the men respond rationally, concluding that 400 roubles isn’t much good if you’re dead. Shcherbina overrides their resistance by using pathos – the appeal to emotion. He speaks to their sense of fellow feeling and patriotic duty.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic reached the UK at the start of the year, the Conservative government has switched between these two modes of persuasion while rarely achieving either.

At times, ministers told us to stay at home or socially distance because it is in our interests to do so; at others, that we had a responsibility to those we care about. In the early months of the pandemic, we were advised not to wear masks on the basis they were unlikely to protect us; now we are told that by wearing them we protect others (which was always the reason to do so anyway).

At times, the tone has been technocratic, at others emotional, although when the government tries to talk human it can make an Alan Partridge-style hash of it (“don’t kill your gran”).

This uncertainty is embodied, of course, in the Prime Minister. Boris Johnson has, tonally speaking, …read more

Source:: New Statesman


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