‘Politicians all sound the same’, or at least that’s what people told us when we did some research at election time into the way they communicate.
Well, that’s not true of Boris Johnson. He doesn’t sound like anyone else, and that’s because he sticks to a tone of voice formula with a calculated consistency that most brands would kill for. (It’s a consistency no doubt honed by churning out column after column for the Torygraph.)
Once you spot it, you’ll notice how little he deviates from it. So here they are: the five ingredients of the BoJoToVo.
1. The pithy phrase – repeated ad nauseum. How many times did you hear him say ‘Get Brexit done?’. Possibly with a bit of help from his pal Dominic, he can boil a whole policy down to a few keywords. He’s even done it as call-and-response with his uncomfortable-looking Cabinet. ‘How many hospitals are we going to build?’ ’40!’
2. The ready metaphor. He has the journalist’s knack of painting a vivid picture of whatever he’s talking about. He called his potential Brexit agreement ‘a Blue Peter deal – here’s one we made earlier’, and ‘oven-ready’ (before adding, weirdly, that you just needed to pop it into the microwave). He’s described the opposition as a ‘Technicolor yawn’. He has much more fun with these pictures than your average politician, and it makes him much more entertaining to listen to.
3. The avalanche of alliteration. When the Brexiteers wanted to mark January the 31st (but found out it would cost a fortune) he said people should ‘Bung a bob for a Big Ben bong.’ Or tried to – it was too much, even for him. When he rejected Theresa May’s Brexit deal and resigned from her Cabinet, he said it was time to ‘Chuck Chequers’. (This is a trick that advertisers have been using for years, of course, to wheedle their way into our heads. That’s why since the 80s they’ve been telling us to p-p-p-pick up a Penguin.)
4. The hifalutin reference. In the midst of all this jollity, he likes to show off his education. So he’ll go for an out-of-the-ordinary word most of us have to look up (in fact, he had to be persuaded to drop the word ‘onanism’ from a speech). Sometimes the hifalutin reference is even in Greek or Latin. In fact, when he was Mayor of London, he once answered a question at Mayor’s Question Time entirely in Latin: ‘Non tali auxilio nec defensoribus istis.’ (And missed out two words from the passage he was quoting from.)
5. The surprising slang. There’s also some very down-to-earth language, like the ‘chuck’ in ‘Chuck Chequers’. ‘F*** business’, he once famously said. He often juxtaposes points four and five for a really arresting mix of the linguistically high- and low-brow; you may remember that when he was once (correctly) accused of having an affair, he denied it as ‘an inverted pyramid of piffle’. (The other person who’s a master of the same juxtaposition is Russell Brand.)
All of this means you’re much more likely to actually listen to Boris Johnson than his opponents. Content aside, if you saw it written down, could you recognise a Jeremy Corbyn speech? Or one by any of the Labour leadership contenders?
Johnson’s tone of voice is what marketing guru Byron Sharp would call a ‘distinctive asset’. (Think of Innocent’s cheeky chirpiness for a brand that uses tone of voice in the same way.) Boris (who’s such a strong brand that we recognise him just from his first name), doesn’t look and sound like anyone else. And just as he knowingly messes up his hair before he goes on stage, this mélange of linguistic cues is very deliberate. He’s a writer after all – and you know what they’re like.
And if you want some tips for how to develop your own distinctive – and effective – way of communicating, we’ve got some tips for you in our eBook, The End of the Hunch (don’t worry, it’s free).