Bernard O'Riordan, Media Trainer
Scaremongering may not be the savviest media strategy, but for our politicians at least, ratcheting up fear is back in vogue when it comes to persuading and influencing people.
Consider the high-intensity, emotive language used by Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore recently to ridicule a new inner-city housing development planned by the NSW Government.
Not only was it a “planning disaster” that would create a “ghetto”, she said in this article, but the project also threatened Sydney’s economic growth with tall “dark” towers next to “overshadowed” parks.
It sounded like something straight from the Donald Trump play book, appealing to popular anxieties, fears and prejudices by using simple emotive words with a dark connotation.
Motivating an audience by appealing to their emotions – their fears, hopes or dreams – can be a highly effective media strategy. But it’s meaningless if the fear-arousing message lacks a solution.
Clover Moore, for example, tapped into the fears and concerns many inner-city locals have about over-development, but she did not outline an alternative vision for the area south of the CBD. So all she really provided was conflict - and a few irresistible quotes that kept her in the news cycle.
She also conveniently ignored the benefits the development would bring, including a new metro rail station, four hectares of public parkland, 10,000 jobs and around 2,000 new units.
That’s often the desired outcome when someone uses negative emotional language; they want to create a state of emergency in our psyche that distracts us from the relevant facts on which we should make a rational decision. The human mind gets trapped thinking about negatives, and we start to believe it's true.
Perhaps we have Trump’s accidental brilliance to thank for this approach because it seems more politicians are now defining themselves, not by what they stand for, but what they stand against.
Regardless of whether it's positive or negative language, politicians and even advertisers embrace emotional language to try to sway public opinion.
Trump, for instance, uses the rhetoric of fear to build allegiance on issues like immigration, terrorism and hardship. He highlights a problem real or perceived and then provides a solution (whether it’s achievable or not).
According to a New York Times analysis, his favourite fear words are ‘stupid’, ‘dumb’, ‘bad’, ‘scared’, ‘horrible’ and ‘weak’. They're simple words but they are exceptionally persuasive in terms of nudging listeners towards a particular viewpoint, even prompting some people to change their minds on an issue.
Perhaps that's why so many others are trying to emulate his style.
So how might this be useful in business? Well, dwelling on the negative is never a good media strategy.
But the use of emotive language (both negative and positive) to highlight an issue or concern can change the conversation, particularly when its used often enough.
It's actually a technique you can use in meetings, pitches, presentations and media interviews, and it's perfect when crafting thought leadership articles.
By highlighting a problem or concern, and repeating emotive keywords and superlatives to connect with your audience, you can create greater understanding and potentially attract greater media interest.
There might come a time when you or your organisation also needs to defend a position or resist a project or development, as Clover Moore did. Emotive language is the most powerful tool you will have in your communication arsenal to sway public opinion and get people to see things differently.
A word of caution though. Don't confuse this with repeating negative language that a journalist might feed you in a media interview. The last thing you want to do is be quoted using dangerous or toxic ideas that have been fed to you.
If you are going to use emotive language, the words you choose really should be pre-planned and strategic so they fit with your organisation's communications strategy.
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