Boris Johnson: Clown or Genius?

Recently, Britain got a new prime minister, the former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. It came during a time of chaos and upheaval over Brexit, but I’ll leave the politics to a minimum. Rather, I’m going to talk about Boris Johnson. Some think he’s a clown. Some think he’s a dangerous clown. I think he’s a persuasive genius.

This article will explain why by taking a look at…

  • His persona.
  • His language.
  • His instincts.

The Boris Johnson Persona

Start by taking a look at Boris Johnson. At first you probably don’t see much. You see somebody that looks fat and disheveled. And he has really bad teeth.

That’s where the persuasion starts.

Boris Johnson stands out. He can’t be missed. To be persuasive, you must first be memorable, and you remember him just by looking at him.

That’s not the work of a clown. Julius Caesar did the same thing. He purposefully dressed and moved in a certain way that was just a little bit abnormal, but not too much. Other charismatic figures in history, ranging from Elizabeth I to Abraham Lincoln, did the same thing.

Your appearance is crucial because it’s the first thing people see. Try to find something that makes you stand out and is consistent with the persona you want to build, but you can’t go overboard. Practice makes perfect.

Boris Johnson leverages his disheveled appearance into his personality and public performances. Because of his appearance, you kind of expect him to do some of the things he does, and can forgive his gaffes.

If some typical politician did some of these things, you’d dismiss them. It just doesn’t work for the prim and proper types, which is precisely what makes them boring. Boris Johnson can go out of his way to be more entertaining than other politicians because…

  • He’s already Pre-Suaded you that he’s atypical thanks to his appearance and mannerisms.
  • He’s not as afraid of embarrassment as other politicians. This is another key reason for his persuasive effectiveness. Boris Johnson has overcome shyness to a T. Call him a clown all you want. It works.
  • He’s consistent with the persona. He never hesitates, thus maintaining the integrity of the act and the illusion.
  • He usually has higher energy than those around him, raising the tempo in the room and making himself the source of attention and pleasure.

These things are the key to his character. He doesn’t second guess himself in public and as a result, he gets his act over with his audience. He doesn’t care if he has to look like a clown in the process. If you’re caring, your act is inconsistent and won’t connect. Like all of the best leaders, he understands that politics is largely theater and fearlessly plays his chosen part.

His Language

Boris Johnson struck me as having the gift of gab when he said this after being chosen as leader of Britain’s Conservative Party (and thus Prime Minister).

Robert Cialdini advises in Pre-Suasion that beginning your message by acknowledging a weakness and then promptly overruling it with a countervailing strength simultaneously builds trust and shifts attention to those positive qualities.

This is precisely what he did when he said that his campaign acronym spelt “dud” – “BUT,” he went on, there was a final “E” for “energize.” Thus, he got in front of a potential weakness before his opponents could, built up trust, and seized the high ground by using a countervailing strength.

Then, humorously, he told all the “dudes,” about the great things he was going to do for the United Kingdom as prime minister. Note language such as “full fiber broadband sprouting in every home.” “Sprouting” is a visual word, which conjures up images of nature, making it doubly powerful. It’s also an active word that creates a dynamic, rather than a static, thought.

All of these things are aspects of conversational hypnosis discussed in Unlimited Selling Power. I don’t know whether Boris Johnson is doing these things purposely or not, but the prime minister is still doing them.

He also made the word “energize” literal, because of his enthusiastic energy level that complemented an aspirational vision. It makes people feel good. The prime minister has been consistent with this and he can use it as effectively against his opponents as he can to rally people on his own side.

This is what’s called “cutting a promo” in professional wrestling. A well-delivered promo engages the audience and gets you cheered if you’re a babyface and booed if you’re a heel. On both sides of the equation here, it was mission accomplished. Supporters cheered and opponents booed.

The energy and delivery were well done, and Boris Johnson used the high ground maneuver again when, after pointing out his opponent’s weaknesses, declared his party as the one on the side of the people.

The Prime Minister and His Instincts

Boris Johnson has a knack for winning things that Conservatives in Britain normally can’t. He won the mayoralty of London twice by comfortable margins, which, like any major city, usually votes left. This suggests that he knows how to bring people in that don’t normally vote for his party. He knows their thoughts and feelings and he’s ready to act on them.

The biggest example of this was undoubtedly Brexit.

Pinning an audience to Brexit isn’t easy to do, because it’s something that transcends traditional party politics. On the one hand, you had traditionalist conservatives who viewed the European Union as a growing octopus, stifling liberties and national sovereignty with its ever-lengthening tentacles. On the other hand, there were left wing Labour voters who felt that they and their industries were being undercut by the EU. Both were true at once. It more than resembles the same phenomenon that catapulted Trump to power in the same year, and other populist movements throughout Europe.

For a long time, Boris Johnson stayed on the sidelines of the Brexit debate, only emerging on the Leave side late in the game. Trying to discern his true beliefs might be akin to mind-reading, but he instinctively knew where the wind was blowing, and saw his chance to dominate the space of the movement. It’s a move detailed in Stumped’s second chapter.

And he did it magnificently. This speech hit all the right notes. It was aspirational. It put down those who would put down their own country. It used some social proof by pointing out how Britain voting to leave would extend more hope to “hundreds of millions” of people throughout Europe who have felt themselves silenced by the EU. It’s what people wanted to hear and he made them hear it with an optimal choice of language. If this is the work of a clown, it’s a damn good act. The speech is more like a work of genius.

He risked a lot to take the position that he took, but ultimately, his instincts were correct. That’s ultimately why he’s prime minister today. As Cialdini tells us, success in persuasion is as much about the privileged moment as it is about the words you use or the things you do. Traditional politicians who thought Remain would be a shoe-in to win missed the national mood.

Lose touch with the times and you’re doomed. The previous Prime Minister, Theresa May, did just that, and fell from power as a result. Unlike her successor, she’s a traditional politician, not a clown or a genius. The play it safe approach she tried to do failed because she again missed the national mood. That’s why the Brexit Party emerged from out of nowhere and now threatens to destroy Britain’s conservatives.

It’s up to the new prime minister to prevent that from happening to his party. It will be the ultimate test of his persuasive power. He has until Halloween to pull something off – not long.

Boris Johnson Clown
Can a clown genius get Brexit done?

We’ll see whether the work of a clown emerges, or the work of a genius. Or both.

Find out how clowns can be geniuses in Stumped.

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