Every day, I witness the subtle power created by the person who acts as the “summariser” in any meetings. The one who takes on the master of ceremonies mantle, using phrases like: “So I think we are all agreed that….”; “I think the key thing we need to take out of this is…” ; and so on, and so forth.
The Summariser can direct attention away from the items which they want to ignored, towards what they want to be remembered and actioned in future. It means decisions are often made within the context of what interests the Summariser, creating the best outcomes for them or their larger agenda.
It was as a sixteen-year-old reading the acerbic Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, a critical biography of some legendary Victorian icons, that the power of the Summariser really hit home.
His ground-breaking book broke with convention by ripping apart the myths surrounding historical figures, showing them to have feet of clay, where hagiographies had only existed previously.
Drawing on the techniques he used, I will show how he was an early exemplar of the modus operandi: He, who controls the medium, controls the message.
If Lytton Strachey were writing about PR today, his guide to being a Summarizer in PR would go something like this:
How to kill an idea or piece of work you don’t like?
Use language to portray an idea as being superficial by using purposely inappropriate phrases when talking about it.
PR Summariser talking to a PR veteran about their idea: “I think it has merit, but doesn’t it come across as a bit GCSE?”
How Strachey does it
On the respected churchman Cardinal Manning: “The tall gaunt figure….passed in triumph from High Mass…to Mayfair drawing-rooms where fashionable ladies knelt to the Prince of the Church”
How to create a stronger case for your PR approach?
Speculate wildly around the dangers of going with a line of thought other than your own, then through bombast, make your own thoughts seem the most reliable.
PR Summariser talking to client: “I am sure other agencies will walk in here and say something crazy like launch this product with a celeb, but you and I both know that would result in a short-term spike in coverage, but zero credibility. Your brand doesn’t want zero credibility, does it? So you will agree it is about your own audience acting as star advocates, not using celebs”.
How Strachey does it
On the then Anglican Cardinal Manning supposedly conniving with the Pope in a meeting (of which Lytton has no evidence): “It is possible that the authorities in Rome had their eyes on Manning… What did Pio Nono say? It is easy to imagine the persuasive innocence of his Italian voice. ‘Ah, dear Signor Manning, why don’t you come over to us? Do you suppose that we should not look after you?’…. At any rate, when he did go over, Manning was looked after very thoroughly”
How to talk up the desired capabilities that your PR outfit can deliver?
Repeat the capability you want to highlight at least x3, with an added dash of melodrama
PR Summarizer pitching:
“Small is good, but these days client needs to know they can rely on expertise across the globe. A real easy-to-access global network”
“We speak to our colleagues in the New York and Indian offices on a daily basis”
“Our global approach makes the world seem a very small place for brands”
How Strachey does it
On Florence Nightingale (whom he wasn’t too keen on, despite her popularity):
“A Demon possessed her. Now demons, whatever else they may be, are full of interest”
“…even her vision of heaven itself [was] filled with suffering patients..”
“Beneath her cool and calm demeanour lurked fierce and passionate fires”
“Her tentacles reached the India Office and succeeded in established a hold even upon those slippery high places”
Lytton’s top tips to the PR Summariser would be:
- Burlesque or use faintly ridiculous language against ideas or routes you want consigned to history
- Set the framework of a meeting or review of work, to achieve the outcome you want from it
- Use linguistic repetition to create a sense of certainty and reassurance
- Use carefully planned juxtaposition to subtly undermine competing work and enhance your own company
And my advice would be, read Eminent Victorians. It is very funny, and a masterclass in how to use language as a lethal and very effective weapon.