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Peter Cook

Human Dynamics

Managing Director

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Blog: Punk Rock HR – Will NLP decide the US election?


As the US Elections draw to a climax, I thought I’d highlight some of the tactics of influence used by leaders.  

Many world leaders are thought to be exponents of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), which has mixed views.
On one side, NLP is seen as an effective tool of win-win influence. On the other side, it has a bad reputation in some circles, due to accusations of its use as a tool of manipulation. I am personally averse to the evangelical NLP fringe. Politicians in particular have been criticised as exponents of mass-hallucination. 
Somewhat coincidentally, Alice Cooper recently suggested that he should be the candidate for U.S. President.  Let’s see why…
What is Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) anyway? Simply stated, NLP is a branch of practical psychology, which offers a suite of strategies and techniques to use language to impact the way in which you and others think. Naturally, the ability to inform, influence and persuade others is on a lot of leadership agendas. 
It is therefore popular in business, politics and other walks of life where influence and persuasion matters. Tony Blair, David Cameron and Barak Obama are thought to be NLP disciples. I’m flagging up some of the language related aspects of NLP in this blog:
Mind Your Language
NLP offers two language models – the so-called Milton and Meta models.  Put crudely, the Milton model is about ‘loose language’ and the Meta model about ‘specific language’.  Loose language is beloved of hypnotists, orators and rock stars, for example:
“Peace, Land and Bread” – Vladimir I Lenin
“Power To The People” – John Lennon
“Yes for a Great Russia” – Vladimir Putin
“Ronnie Talk to Russia” – Prince
“Yes We Can” – Barak Obama
“Yes We Can” – Bob The Builder
“We must build a bigger, stronger society” – David The Cameron.
At one level, these phrases carry no real meaning at all. Yet, taken in the context of a great performance, they can inspire. By saying nothing specific they communicate everything to an audience who wants to believe the generalisation. 
Most successful politicians are masters of generalisation, partly because they use broadcast media most of the time, where specifics would divide people. What separates the sheep from the goats is the extent to which they then deliver such promises.
The Meta model is about specific language. It’s a good idea to be specific if you are a computer programmer or an accountant, but it’s rare to hear politicians use specifics. Obama is rather good at using loose language to stir people’s emotions. Romney is rather good at using specific language to get things wrong:
“Middle income is $200,000 to $250,000 and less” – Mitt Romney
 "I went to a number of women’s groups and said ‘Can you help us find folks?’ and they brought us whole binders full of women" – Mitt Romney
Does this mean that Obama has studied NLP and Romney hasn’t? Does that mean that Romney is inept with language and Obama is not? Does that mean that either of them would be better at running the country? Does that make NLP wrong? No. 
There may be a high correlation between an ability to speak convincingly in order to be elected but there is a low correlation between speaking well and running the country.  

The Hypnotic world of Barak Obama
A slightly cranky group of people have suggested that Obama uses hypnotic language to lure his audiences into trance. This is utter rubbish.
Obama certainly uses linking phrases, repetition, what NLP calls anchoring, marking out certain words for effect, but these have been hallmarks of great speakers since time began rather than NLP sorcery. In any case, all this assumes that the people listening are mindless drones without free will.
People who love Obama point to his great oratory. People who hate him most often suggest that he lacks authenticity – in other words, that his beliefs have been bought in a shop rather like you might buy some spray tan for your legs as a warm up for a summer holiday.  
A gap between promises and delivery is always a problem for politicians. The whole question as to whether you vote for someone is to do with trust. But, if you are going to lie, you will lie anyway.  NLP does not make you lie.  It may just make you a better liar.  
It’s pretty much a case of "It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it" to misquote Bananarama.   Let’s see a master of the art in action: [youtube=]
  • If you give bad people good tools, they get better at doing bad stuff. That, of course, is not the fault of the tools, it’s the people.
  • NLP has been going on since the world began. All great orators speak in generalisations, use metaphor, multi-sensory communications and hypnotic language. Listen better to what’s being said and what is not and be a tad skeptical.
  • Setting aside the poor use of NLP by people who do not operate from an ethical value base. I personally have found NLP to have immense practical value as part of a set of strategies for making difficult things happen. I find it helpful to see NLP in the round of the wide range of approaches to personal excellence rather than seeing it as an all-embracing ‘answer’. Take out the pieces that work, leaving behind the more doubtful or dangerous elements.

Peter Cook is managing director of business and organisational performance consultancies, Human Dynamics and The Academy of Rock.

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Peter Cook

Managing Director

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