Review: By Rian Whitton
The lines between strategic communications and behavioural science are blurring, opening doors for a range of actors. From private advertisers, global brands, political parties and military authorities, the power to influence and persuade a designated audience is being supplemented with a growing number of techniques, methodologies and doctrines. Following the tumult of 2016, Sven Hughes, an ex-serviceman, gives readers a refreshing insight into the Influence industry, where its stalled, and how it can get results in the future.
Hughes’ book, ‘Verbalisation: The power of words to drive change’ is a concise extrapolation of the methodologies used by his strategic communications companies (Verbalisation and Global Influence). From the outset, the power of verbal communication is set at the forefront. At a time when advertisers and political campaigners are saturating their audiences with visual material, this shift of emphasis to the written and spoken word marks an attempt to understand people at a deeper level.
The premise of Hughes’ book is that the ability of companies, governments and militaries to persuade and gauge an audience’s feelings has become inaccurate and outdated. Businesspeople, pollsters and generals are very good at getting people to say certain things, but have increasingly conflated standardised responses with more tangible understandings of actual opinion. This short book is a compact iconoclasm of trends and fashions in the influence industry, and highlights the failure, from Afghanistan to the US election, of established actors to understand communities.
As an antidote to this complacency, Hughes lays out a simple three-stage framework, through which salesmen, politicians and military commanders will be able to gauge audience opinion in a more sophisticated and scientific way. Verbalisation decodes its audience, encodes that analysis into the right messaging, and then engages the audience through campaigns that take lessons from the behavioural sciences.
Part of Hughes’ desire to reform strategic communications and the influence industry stems from his background in Britain’s psychological operations (psy-ops) in Afghanistan. Upon stepping on arrowheads dating back to Alexander’s conquests, he was struck by the failure of Western forces to build on historical experience. This has also been the view of former marine General and current US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Perturbed by the futile nature of simply fighting the enemy without reference to the war of ideas, Hughes has come to understand the growing importance of Psy-ops and shifting the strategic focus from military action to verbal engagement.
Two examples given by Hughes hammer home the importance of understanding context and digging deep to empathise with the audience. Verbalisation’s award-winning ‘not another brother‘ is a short film produced for the counter-extremist think-tank Quilliam, and exemplifies the company’s research methods; namely placing extra importance on decoding the audience and pattern-matching their psychology.
While fighting some of the more hardened Taliban initiates, The psy-ops division Hughes was posted with realised they were more likely to force withdrawal when the enemy thought they may be captured, rather than killed. Novel changes like this represent the value of an growing discipline. If the future of military victory is increasingly affected on the ability to alter behaviour in the populace and enemy forces, Verbalisation has bountiful opportunities to expand.
There are two specific models that are central to Hughes’ methodology. The first, RAID (Rapid Audience Insight Diagnostic) is a behavioural model designed to understand and empathise with an audience.
The second model, CYPHA, is used to pattern-match the language to audience-insights, encoding the message by which producer and receiver can connect. In explaining the novelty of his approach, Hughes describes his methods as a process of not understanding how you can sell something, but finding out what they want to buy. For a more comprehensive exploration of Verbalisation’s philosophy, Hughes’s conversation with Vince Houghton from Spycast is highly recommended.
There are some rare points of contention regarding the overplaying of dialogue in military matters. It is argued that soft power and psychological operations are, at the strategic and tactical level, more effective than military action. This skirts over the fact that soft power is not antithetical to hard power, but rather a supplement to it. The two examples Hughes gives of Verbalisation’s persuasive media targeted at Jihadists rest on the determination that their side cannot win, that they will die in some forlorn conflict, or may be captured. This rests on the concepts of assurance and deterrence, which in turn can only be made believable by the application of hard power.
This sidetracks into a caveat about the utility of the book, and the influence industry in general. The methodologies in Verbalisation will not make a bad product sell, an ineffectual politician a success or an ill-conceived military campaign successful. What the book does do, however, is provide a framework to better empathise with an audience, and so is essential reading for those hoping to accrue a greater arsenal of persuasive tools.
The book is even more topical in the context of recent events. A recent Guardian article covered the use of data analytics by the Brexit and Trump teams, who mitigated their resource imbalance with their opponents by leveraging novel technologies and methodologies to gain specific insights into the thoughts and wants of targeted voter groups. In part, Verbalisation is a corrective to the old systems of polling, marketing and advertisement that, as showcased in 2016, are no longer adequate in securing success..
To conclude, Verbalisation is an excellent primer for those who wish to better understand the influence industry. For those in business, politics and the military, the techniques used will be of enormous help in developing a strategy to understand and influence a target audience. For casual readers, it is filled with an eclectic range of case-studies and provides a fresh structure of thinking that will enthuse those wishing to improve their powers of persuasion.
‘Verbalisation’ can be bought on Amazon as either hardback or an e-book.