Persuasion: What does the “Brexit” debate teach us about the gentle art?

Persuasion: What does the “Brexit” debate teach us about the gentle art?

As the full weight of the seismic events of a Brexit vote begin to sink in, I thought it valuable to reflect on some of the fundamental lessons for business leaders about the gentle art of persuasion:

If you push, people push back

The Remain campaign started strongly telling people how to vote. And repeated the message again and again. Psychologists will tell you if you push people, they instinctively push back, regardless of the content/benefit/ threat of the message. Put another way people don’t like to be pushed around and will resist it at a basic level. We have all had the negative experience of pushy (poor/inexperienced) salespeople. A more convincing approach might have been to ask a few questions about what sort of future do you see for the UK and then to paint a vision for people to buy into.

Power of personality and the under dog

Love him or hate him, Boris Johnson is a big personality. As the government became more closely aligned with the Remain camp, Boris took on the mantle of the plucky under dog which audiences found appealing and attractive. You only have to look at what happened in the 2015 General Election to see the same effect at work. The electorate were left unconvinced by Cameron, Milliband, Clegg and Farage who they increasingly distrusted. It was the performance of Nicola Sturgeon, a relatively unknown political entity, who came over as natural and engaging that proved decisive for both her and inadvertently, the Tories.

David Cameron doesn’t have the same charisma and, as a result popular appeal, as Johnson and it shows how important it is to project your natural personality when looking to win the support of others.


Repetition is a useful way to reinforce points and both sides used it to great effect. But you can go too far. There were times when people felt their intelligence was being insulted and they were being patronised. For it to work as Goldilocks would testify, it has to be just right.

Power of the sound bite

Business leaders know the power of a good sound bite in terms of getting your message across. I think the prize for the most pithy in this campaign must go to Ian Duncan Smith who cleverly adapted Bill Clinton’s 1992 catchphrase, “Immigration is the Economy, Stupid!”


Both fear and freedom are powerful primary motivators which explain the distinct nuances of each campaign and much human behaviour. This also explains why the debate has been so polarised and why people have clung on to such beliefs to the point of not listening to the other point of view.

Psychologists argue that fear is three times more powerful than desire in getting people to act. In this case “project fear” of the Remain campaign was unsuccessful. But maybe on a deeper level people feared the loss of immigration control, jobs, sovereignty and services more.

The power of statistics

Statistics are a great way to add credibility to your point.

Who is going to forget the £350m/week we send to to Brussels?

Or George Osborne’s £4,300/year worse off the average family will be if we vote Brexit? Both statistics have been challenged, ridiculed and dismissed by the other side but an argument without a statistic lacks substance and doesn’t sound credible. The controversy surrounding both claims all translated into media airtime and column inches. Adding weight to the value of the media and as the Movie star Jane Russell famously said “Publicity can be terrible, but only if you don’t have any”.

Use of visual language

Great presenters and public speakers know that one of the best ways of making points memorable is to employ the skills of a radio journalist and use visual language. Nigel Farage started one of his adresses:

“If we vote Remain on 23 June we may as well hang a sign on the White Cliffs of Dover saying “Terrorists Welcome”

Or how about John Major being interviewed by Andrew Marr:

“Putting Boris Johnson in charge of NHS is like leaving a python to take care of your pet hamster.”

At a local level a Sevenoaks resident said “…if you are on the Titanic and it’s sinking, surely the smart thing to do is to get into a lifeboat.”

In conclusion, if business leaders want to inspire, motivate and lead others forward together, they would do well to learn from our political lords and Masters. We eagerly await the future of what lies ahead for both UK and Europe. A final point worth considering…..there is a view that both sides got what they wanted, Reform.

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All The Best
James McBrien
Managing Director

Showing how to win hearts and minds since 2004

41 Lothbury London EC2R 7HF
Tel: (+44) (0)20 7831 8700
Email: [email protected]
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