Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Driven to screaming point by endless repetition

Which PR genius invented the theory that the way to get a message across is through endless repetition? Because I would personally like to bang their head against a brick wall until they veered off message and begged me to stop.

If I hear geeky Ed with the speech impediment, or menacing Ed with the sinister smile, say just once more that the Coalition is “out of touch”, I swear I shall scream. Probably because I have just injured myself putting my foot through a TV screen.

Doing the thing with the hands: out of touch. Geddit?

I first found myself on the receiving end of the repetition technique more than a decade ago, when trying to defend a client against a hostile takeover bid. The bidder had engaged the largest and most successful financial PR consultancy in London, whose one detectable contribution was to employ the word “woeful” in every single pronouncement it made about my client.

This rapidly became like Chinese water torture, and certainly inspired me to redouble my efforts on the other side. More importantly, it did not work. My client retained its independence.

Woeful? Far from it.

I love words, and enjoy as much variety in them as possible. One of the many delights of English is that is the richest language on the planet. I do not advocate using an obscure word where a plain one will do; I find it painful to read writers like Anthony Burgess who force me to reach for a dictionary almost every time I turn a page.

But it is a joy to be able to deploy the right word in the correct context to convey one’s meaning as accurately as possible. Endlessly repeating the same stock phrases is the antithesis of good communication and lively debate.

I still shudder at the memory of a colleague who made it his mission one year to see just how many corporate results announcements he could begin with the words “This has been a watershed year for your company.”

I much preferred the approach of the chairman who took a yearly bet with a City analyst to work one challenging word into his statement in the annual report. The conventional tribute to employees was once enlivened by a description of them as “Stakhanovite”, after the hero of Soviet labour who achieved legendary levels of productivity as a miner under Stalin’s second five-year plan.

The original Stakhanovite

On another occasion the strength of the business was attributed to its being “autochthonous”: indigenous, native, well rooted in its local soil.

Both useful words that have been part of my regular vocabulary ever since.

My appeal to the corporate and political worlds alike is to credit their audiences with a bit of intelligence, and try to stimulate us with a bit of originality and a modicum of wit.

Vince Cable has proved himself good at this, having most of the characteristics of a thunderstorm: dark, miserable and threatening most of the time, but enlivened by sudden flashes of brilliant light.

Vince Cable: his true vocation

Such as his legendary comparison of Gordon Brown to Mr Bean, or last week’s crack that “being lectured by Ed Balls on the economy is like being lectured on seamanship by the captain of the Costa Concordia.” Which is spot-on accurate, and wins bonus marks from me for being in thoroughly questionable taste.

Balls: what he and Brown did to Britain. Only in deeper water.

Come on, boys and girls of Westminster. Do you seriously think that if you keep endlessly repeating the same numbingly tedious phrases a light bulb is going to ping on above our words and we’re going to put down our suddenly massively more expensive cans of cider or lager and say, “Oh yeah, the Coalition is out of touch, aren’t they? Same old Tories. I must vote for that Ed.”

Surely we can achieve a higher level of debate than this? Because encouraging people to take an interest in politics definitely requires more than saying exactly the same thing over and over again until we all reach screaming point.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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