HS2, Seneca and the art of persuasion


Persuasion is an important skill for designers: to convince the audience of an idea is it to allow it take root and evolve. Unfortunately, I never have been convinced of my persuasive powers, which is why I am always on the look out for useful tools of persuasion. The following two approaches from very different sources caught my attention this week. Add them to your thinking toolkits if you think they are of use.

The case High Speed 2 and the Overton Window

I first read about the concept of the Overton Window in Owen Jones’s excellent book, ‘The Establishment’. The Overton Window is the range of ideas that the public will accept. This range is not necessarily fixed and can be stretched or shifted one way or the other. Jones argues that the UK ‘establishment’ has successfully shifted the Overton Window in the UK by supporting pressure groups that consistently present in the media opinions to the right of popular acceptability. Over time and exposure these once-extreme views become more acceptable, shifting the Overton Window to the right. In this article from the US National Review the author claims the Overton Window in the US is moving the other way, although I can’t say I agree.

From an engineering design point of view, it is interesting to see how the high-speed rail Overton Window has shifted, as described by Simon Jenkins in his article ‘HS2: the zombie train that refuses to die’. When the first enthusiasts started proposing high-speed rail in the 80s, the railways were in decline – it was an extreme view. Then, little by little, things nudged the terms of the debate towards acceptability: the construction of the channel tunnel; the lack of high-speed line to the tunnel; the eventual opening of the first high-speed line to the tunnel; how high-speed rail could see off the need for a third runway at Heathrow. Eventually, the terms of the debate shifted from whether or not to have a high-speed line, to which route it would take.

And so, there we have persuasive tool number one. It is possible to shift an audience to your way of thinking by consistently and repeatedly advocating ideas that are just beyond acceptability and looking for small wins that slowly shift the Overton Window in your favour. Think of it more as a stopping train than a high-speed approach.

Seneca says don’t be scruffy

My second persuasive tool is not so much a technique but a starting point and comes from Seneca’s ‘Letters from a Stoic’. In his fifth letter he advises his correspondent to

“avoid shabby attire, long hair, an unkempt beard, an outspoken dislike of silverware, sleeping on the ground and all other misguided means to self-advertisement”

The aim of his advice is to make his friend, a fellow philosopher, more acceptable in appearance to his audience so that he may may have more influence over them. He goes on,


“Let our way of life be not diametrically opposed to, but better than that of the mob. Otherwise we shall repel and alienate the very people whose reform we desire”.

And so there we have our second tool of persuasion: don’t be so extreme as to put people off. Be of them, be recognisable to them so that they might accept you.

Acceptable unacceptability?

I encountered these two approaches in the same week, and initially thought them opposed: one is to champion views from the extremes and draw people towards them; the other is to champion views from a position of acceptability. So which is better?

Seneca anticipates and resolves this paradox for us by recommending that,

“one’s life should be a compromise between the ideal and the popular morality. People should admire our way of life but they should at this time find it understandable.”

So perhaps where these approaches meet, and where designers should aim for is acceptable unacceptability.

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