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July 12, 2019

What can 19th Century Russian literature teach us about communications today?

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Few novels have the distinction of being nearly as wide as they are tall, but The Brothers Karamazov by famed Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky is one. I studied it during my theology and philosophy degree and found it to be as complicated as it is long. Ideas, characters and perspectives slide and fold across one another to create a plot that makes the muddied blood lines of Game of Thrones look pedestrian.

However, there is one passage in particular that splinters out of this Russian doorstop: The Grand Inquisitor. Recited as a poem by one of the characters, it is a 30-page theological argument between the head of the Spanish Inquisition and Jesus, whom the Inquisitor has taken prisoner. An extraordinary premise for an existential showdown – and one that continues to be relevant 120 years since it was written.

But what has this got to do with modern communications?

The answer lies in the strength of the argument and rhetoric – or, the messaging if you like. For at the heart of The Grand Inquisitor is a communications challenge, and it is fiendishly difficult: to persuade the listener (in this case, Jesus) that he is wrong.

The Inquisitor starts with a series of rhetorical questions followed by answers to those same questions. This is a tried and tested communications strategy, a great tool to set out an argument and the perfect way to elicit curiosity of an audience.

Even more shrewdly, the Inquisitor makes the effort to quote his audience’s own words back to him to make his argument. Clearly, the Inquisitor has done his market research.

Then, after this strong opening, he moves on to the crux of his messaging framework with a three-part structure to bring his point home. This is a powerful, tried-and-tested rhetorical device first coined by Aristotle, which allows the Inquisitor to make a coherent argument by establishing expertise on the topic, using emotive language and also clear logic.

As a strategy, it is tightly structured, targeted and deeply persuasive. He engages with the details of his audience’s life from the Bible, before confounding expectations. The original New Testament stories are given a new veneer, spun and turned on their head to support his wholly engaging argument.

However, are the Inquisitor’s methods effective?

In short, no. The prisoner remains silent throughout. He gets up, gently kisses the Inquisitor and leaves – unharmed and unpersuaded. Rather, it is the Inquisitor who goes away a changed man, tearful and moved by the listener’s humanity. In this instance the Inquisitor made a fatal communications error – he underestimated his target audience.

Perhaps Dostoevsky’s lesson is that even the best structured argument, with a persuasive set of key messages, supported with strong market research and skillfully delivered with wit can be eclipsed by something that is altogether more simple but heartfelt – a clear sense of purpose, integrity and a human touch.

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