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The diminishing power of three

February 22, 2021

One of the things I used to speak about when I ran communications workshops was that messages are best delivered in groups of three. Nothing new about this. People figured this out long ago, as Lincoln did in “of the people, for the people and by the people”. It’s often referred to by hacks like me as The Power of Three.

But rhetorical devices tend to have a weaker effect the more they’re used. When a technique that resonated so powerfully at Gettysburg turns into a default feature of a government communications handbook, it loses credibility. A case in point is now, when the British government, in the middle of a pandemic, flush with money it doesn’t have and delighting in new powers undreamed of in times other than war, makes use of the opportunity to lecture us about subjects way beyond the remit of public health.

The other morning, for example, I was assaulted on Twitter with a message from the UK’s National Crime Agency that told me to “know the gun, know the law and know the consequences”. It was, of course, intended to deter us from owning and using firearms.

Though I absolutely agree with the sentiment, I have no intention of going to gun class so that I can tell the difference between an AK47 and an M16, or between a Luger and a Beretta. As for the law, is there anyone over ten years old who is unaware that in the UK it’s illegal to own a gun? OK, they might know that the police are allowed guns, as are farmers and posh people who like shooting animals. But by and large, the vast majority of people know that you can’t buy a shotgun at Tesco.

And the consequences? Do we really need to be told that if we fire a gun at someone they might die and we might go to jail?

So what’s the point of splurging public money on telling us what we already know? Are our masters worried that, crazed as we are by lockdown, we’re about to bring out our hidden weaponry and start shooting each other, or worse still, that in tribute to our unruly American neighbours we’re about to storm Parliament?

It’s almost as though different branches of government are starting to compete with each other in coming up with the most inane three-pronged messages. Not content with “stay at home, save lives, protect the NHS”, which in many homes is now enough to evince piercing screams of fury, the government is turning the power of three into a nauseating cliché.

And by the way, why are we constantly bombarded by videos of our prime minister, dressed in a tight-fitting shirt that shows his nipples and ill-fitting trousers that thankfully show nothing, lurching around like a drunken gorilla and inviting people in hospitals and vaccination centres to crunch elbows with him?

Fortunately there’s only one of him, though you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

I wrote these words yesterday. Coming back to them a day later, as I often do when I want to leaven irritation with a wider perspective, I’m wondering why I reacted thus to a message that under normal circumstances would flit across my eyeline and depart without ceremony. Why is the mere sight of Boris Johnson is enough to raise my blood pressure to dangerous levels? And why do Matt Hancock, Gavin Williamson, Priti Patel and all the other usual suspects provoke a similar reaction?

Is it lockdown psychosis that causes me to swear at the TV whenever these characters start spouting? Or is it, as my wife delicately put it, because they’re in our faces all the time?

A bit of both, perhaps. We started watching the evening news on the BBC during the first lockdown. As a couple, we’ve always got our news from different sources – some by subscription and others depending on our diverse interests. The BBC News has acted as a common reference point, much as it did for our parents in other times of crisis. So it’s not surprising that we should be exposed to the same faces week in, week out. Not just the politicians, but the journalists whose idiosyncrasies either annoy or amuse. Hugh Pym, for example, whose pained smile suggests someone trying to put a brave face on a severe case of constipation, and poor Laura Kuenssberg, who you sense measures every word against a terror that she will be accused of bias.

Another factor for someone like me who has watched the Trump era with horror and fascination, is that America has started to move on from the orange monster. New faces abound, even if some of them are old ones re-animated. There’s a freshness about Biden’s presidency, even if eventually it will turn sour and tired. And yet here in the UK, we have many of the same old characters who have been in our faces for much of the last eleven years. When new ones appear, they don’t seem much different from those they succeeded. Their rhetoric has become ever more robotic.

Does this bother us as a country? It seems not, if opinion polls are any guide.

Still, there’s plenty of outrage about. Among fishermen whose businesses are being destroyed by Brexit. Pressure groups who are challenging the legality of the government’s procurement practices. And plenty of people like me, for whom the success of the vaccination programme doesn’t redeem the incompetence of test and trace and other initiatives. And yet the majority of us still seem to be willing to give Boris Johnson and his crew the benefit of the doubt.

Is this because we British are not so easily influenced by the wilder voices from the social media? Or is it because enough of us have succumbed to the same cultish indoctrination as Trump’s base in America? Or are we stoically awaiting better times, on the basis that it’s unwise to change horses in mid-stream, just in 1945 our parents and grandparents waited until after the defeat of the Nazis before ejecting Churchill?

I can only speak for myself. This morning I listened to an MP called Mark Harper, who belongs to a group in the Conservative ranks that refers to itself as the COVID Recovery Group. Their agenda is to push the government into the earliest possible easing of the current social restrictions. Although I didn’t object to his argument, I still so bridled at his hyperbolic use of language – “our wonderful this, our marvellous that” and so forth – that he could have said almost anything and still had me swearing at him.

So in this respect, how am I different from a Trump supporter in the hinterland of Pennsylvania, for whom nothing a Democrat might say or do will ever gain their approval?

Not so different, perhaps, though I suspect that my affliction is temporary. Also, I like to think I’m prepared to give credit where it’s due, such as for the vaccination programme. But what really sends me off the cliff is listening to the tired old communications clichés, which suggest the arrogance of people who believe that their audience will swallow any old rubbish, as long as it’s coated in Johnsonian rhetoric.

The clichés, the slippery language, the arse-covering and the barrage of bombast have become as tiring as the effects of lockdown. Boris Johnson might be an admirer of Churchill’s rhetorical style, but he forgets that Winston spoke to the nation only on rare occasions, not every day on the TV news.

Less, in those days, was definitely more. And so it should be today.

From → History, Media, Politics, Social, UK, USA

  1. Pardon my hubris, but why do you turn it on?
    So much easier to skip through print, and avoid the pictures altogether.

    • Because of a sense deeply embedded in the British cultural DNA that the BBC is a fount of truth and impartiality.

      Not so any more, but at least it’s still free from the malign hand of Rupert Murdoch

  2. Hubris not the right word. Can’t find the one I need.

  3. Yes, but / read it… much less painful.
    Guardian also.

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