Fighting Talk: A Review of Sven Hughes’s Verbalisation
A Review of Verbalisation: The Power of Words to Drive Change by Sven Hughes
The subtitle of Verbalisation sounds laudable enough: The Power of Words to Drive Change. Change, we tend to believe, is always a good thing. But what happens when the power to drive change becomes available to everyone? Given the claims made in this book, should Hughes have published it at all?
Verbalisation is both the name of this book and a strategic communications company founded by the author. As well as an advantageous background in advertising and politics, Hughes has served with the British Army’s 21 SAS (Reserves) and 15 (UK) Psychological Operations Group (now part of the 77th Brigade). He was deployed to Afghanistan during Operation HERRICK and also operated as a civilian contractor for International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Psychological Operations in Afghanistan. And it is his experiences in Afghanistan that have driven his personal quest to create a more effective way to win over hearts and minds, what he calls ‘Verbalisation’.
The One Word that Won a Battle
Hughes witnessed the power of effective communication during Operation Falcon Summit, a Canadian-led NATO operation in the Battle of Panjwaii in Afghanistan in the winter of 2006/2007. Working for ISAF PsyOps, Hughes had 24 hours to clear the Taliban from a key town and avert a pitched battle. What had worked in Iraq – dropping leaflets on the enemy telling them that they were going to be killed – was not working in Afghanistan.
With the help of surveillance, Hughes was able to establish that the threat of capture was more feared by the Taliban than the threat of death. He had a batch of leaflets re-printed to read ‘Capture or Death Await You’ and dropped over the enemy. The Taliban could be seen reading and discussing them – and it worked. The Taliban left without a fight, all because Hughes had added just one word to the leaflet. It is this battle-hardened approach that underpins the communications methodology revealed in Verbalisation.
Fighting Extremism at Home
One of Verbalisation Ltd’s best known and arguably most important contributions was the #NotAnotherBrother campaign. Commissioned by the Quilliam Foundation, #NotAnotherBrother was a powerful video aimed at young Muslim men in Britain who were considering leaving the country to go and fight for ISIS. It showed an individual of Middle Eastern origin, but speaking the patois of today’s British Muslim youth. Unkempt, greasy and stained, he appeared to be somewhere with the appeal a prison cell and a voice-over spoke earnestly to an offscreen younger brother about the realities of life with ISIS. In the book, we read that this video received 500 million hits in the first week and that letters to various relevant charities demonstrated that it had de-radicalised some impressionable young Muslims.
Decode, Encode, Engage
Verbalisation, the book, aims to show the methodologies used to create such impressive results. To put it simply, the key strategy is to find out what your audience wants (and how it wants it), repackage whatever it is you have and sell it back to them in their own language. This is termed RAID® – Rapid Audience Insights Diagnostic – and CYPHA® – acronym unknown, but suitably meaningful. In Hughes’s terms, RAID® decodes audience communication and CYPHA® encodes your message for that audience, to which he adds ‘engage’, i.e., implementing the encoded message, to create a three-stage process of ‘Verbalisation’.
Hughes breaks down RAID® into four modalities and presents information-eliciting questions used to inform each step in the process. He gives a worked example to make this clear, including an appendix with five common ‘Conversation Cohorts’. Similarly, CYPHA® is broken down into its constituent parts, all seven of them, ranging from strategic to tactical elements. Here he pulls some real-world examples to illustrate the process, as well as continuing to use the worked example developed in the RAID® chapter. In considering ‘engage’, Hughes looks at both internal and external components – getting your team ‘on message’ and then getting that message broadcast to the target audience. Bringing this all together, he presents a series of case studies showing how each stage of decode, encode, engage was done. Finally, Hughes gives some guidance on how to measure the effect of the campaign.
It is a complex, time-consuming and expensive process when deployed in full, but given Hughes’s own experiences, it should still be possible to create significant effect within 24 hours on a limited budget.
Information Warfare in the Post-Factual World
The core ethical problem arises when we move away from worthy information warfare waged against an evil enemy, and consider political and commercial messaging intended to sway the ordinary man and woman in the street. When the call to action moves beyond the political manifesto or product description, it enters the realm of manipulation. This is nothing new for advertisers – and Hughes gives several examples of companies using Verbalisation-type techniques in their marketing – but it is clearly more troubling when political campaigning and especially governance becomes less transparent and more psychologically rigged. A necessary companion to this book has to be nudge-expert Carl R. Sunstein’s The Ethics of Influence: Government in the Age of Behavioral Science (Cambridge University Press, 2016).
But Sven Hughes is one of the good guys and believes that good can come from making his Verbalisation method available to all. Already having established an impressive client list, Hughes did not need to publish this book, but having done so he positions himself as voice to be listened to in the broader debate about the ways and means of influence. Hughes is also more than another pundit. His methods have been battle-tested against the Taliban and ISIS – a USP if ever there was one. It is up to his readers to follow his example and also be the good guys.
Verbalisation: The Power of Words to Drive Change by Sven Hughes
London: Verbalisation Ltd, 2017
HB, 182pp, illustrated, RRP 19.99