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Red flags in Trafalgar Square: Britain’s communist revolution that never was

One of the most important lessons that I’ve learned during my time at the Yardstick Agency is that if you want to convey a message, choosing your language carefully is essential. With the right words in the right context, you can convince anyone of anything.

One of the best examples of this is probably the 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast, in which Orson Welles persuaded millions of Americans that they were under attack by little green men. But while it’s easy to laugh at our cousins from across the pond, we Brits fell for a similar prank just a few years before.

Choosing the right language can have an incredibly persuasive effect on an audience. To see this in action, it’s time to take a look at Britain’s very own communist revolution.

Imagine the scene…

It’s a chilly January evening in 1926 and you’re settling down to dinner with your family, listening to one of those brand-new wireless radios. Two men are having a rather dreary discussion about religion, though you can’t change it over because there’s only one channel.

As you’re tucking into your roast potatoes, a new voice mercifully interrupts with some breaking news. An unemployment demonstration in Trafalgar Square, an increasingly common sight in the past few months, has turned violent.

Interest piqued, you wipe the gravy from the corners of your mouth and turn up the volume. The mob is growing by the minute. Nearby factory workers are dropping their tools and joining the crowds. Riot police are repelled by a barrage of stones and glass bottles.

Similar demonstrations are being reported across the city, spurred on by left-wing agitators. The violence is spreading and police units are being overwhelmed. A mob has broken into an armoury and is now distributing rifles.

You listen with growing horror as the crowds turn their fury on The Savoy Hotel, tossing hand grenades and petrol bombs through the windows. A cornered government minister is dragged kicking and screaming out into the street and lynched from a lamppost.

As the mob approaches the BBC headquarters, the reports abruptly stop, replaced by an hour of assorted music. All you can do is listen in stunned silence as you process what is unravelling.

Broadcasting the Barricades was one of the most successful hoaxes in radio history

Of course, none of that really happened but for hundreds of thousands of people listening in from across the country, it certainly seemed like it did.

The BBC reportedly got hundreds of calls as worried citizens desperately phoned in to ask for more information. One man even rang up the Admiralty and demanded they send a battleship up the Thames to scare the reds into submission!

As far as hoaxes go, Ronald Knox’s Broadcasting the Barricades was a tremendous success. While there were dozens of angry letters sent to the BBC, hundreds more congratulated Knox on how readily they had believed his prank.

Of course, in retrospect it was obvious that it was a hoax. For a start, the main ringleader of the British Communists was a Mr Popplebury, the “Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues”. Likewise, the cabinet member who had allegedly met a grisly fate at the hands of the mob was Theophilus Gooch, the “Minister for Traffic”.

But the reason why Knox was so successful was that he had perfectly mimicked the language and style of the official BBC news bulletins.

For example, like the newsreaders of the day, he would give the same piece of information twice – first in the active voice and then in the passive.  “The crowd in Trafalgar Square is now assuming threatening dimensions. Threatening dimensions are now being assumed by the crowd which has gathered in Trafalgar Square”.

Likewise, he chose his language very carefully to keep with the BBC’s normally restrained tone. The use of the word “disturbance” when referring to what was clearly mob violence is an excellent example.

Choosing your language carefully is essential if you want to persuade an audience

When it comes to marketing your services, it’s important to choose your language carefully so that you can strike the right tone. This is why, before anything else, you need to have a clear understanding of your audience.

For example, a more casual style of speaking can help a reader to feel more engaged, although this may not go down well with an older clientele, who might expect more formality. Conversely, formal language can make your writing seem more authoritative, but may not be very engaging for the casual reader.

Of course, there’s a time and a place for both styles of speaking, so before you start writing it’s important to know what the ultimate purpose of the copy is for. Are you writing to engage or to inform?

In the same way, it’s equally important to know what language your desired audience prefer to be spoken to in, to make sure they feel comfortable and maximise the impact of your persuasive skills.

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