Monday, 28 September 2009

Storytelling with impact: Katy Gordon ppc in the Lib Dems' Real Women debate

As usual, I spent a fair bit of time in the hall at the Liberal Democrat conference. I enjoy policy debates. Also, I was looking out for examples of people using stories to support their arguments and policy ideas.

It was lean pickings I’m afraid, but one speech hit me right between the eyes: the speech by Katy Gordon, ppc for Glasgow North, in the debate on the Real Women policy paper. She was defending the paper’s most controversial proposal, to ban the use of digital retouching technology in advertisements aimed at under 16s and to work with industry professionals to ensure that legislation was appropriately worded to reflect these aims.

Take a look at what Katy Gordon said, almost at the beginning of her speech.

"I wanted to know if the proposals in this paper would be seen as more of the nanny state: those do-gooding Liberals getting worked up over trivia. So I took it along to a group of ordinary women in my constituency of Glasgow North, at the North West Women’s Centre in Maryhill. The group ranged from girls in their twenties to retired grandmothers, many of whom have faced real barriers in bringing up families. I asked them what they thought of media images of female beauty and whether there was any role for government on this issue.

"What struck me was that all of them independently came up with the proposals in this paper! From Gail, a retail manager, who asked whether we could put something in magazine pictures to say they are airbrushed to Denise, a caretaker, who suggested showing before and after photos so everyone could see the difference.

"What really struck home though was Trisha, who told me about her daughter, Mary-Ann. Mary-Ann is 20 and all the women agreed she is pretty but she is tall and she thinks of herself as fat. She is always comparing herself to the images in magazines and gets terribly depressed. In fact, Trisha is worried that she is secretly taking laxatives, in a desperate attempt to lose weight.

"Now the women were very clear that they had a responsibility to give their daughters the confidence to reject these unrealistic portrayals of female beauty. As Stacey said, you need to start young to get them to be confident in their bodies. Trisha tells Mary-Ann regularly that ‘she is a real woman and that beauty comes from the inside’, but however good a parent you are, you are up against the might of the media and the beauty industry."

Katy Gordon used stories, with real characters, a beginning and an end, to help build her case. Taken together, the stories pass the Anecdote test for what makes a story have impact. They are clear, believable and have strike an emotional chord. There’s an element of surprise: the “ordinary” women were, in effect, already calling for the same proposals as the party.
Katy Gordon told what Annette Simmons(1) calls an “I-know-what-you-are thinking story”:

"A trust-building surprise for you to share the audience’s secret suspicions that first validates and then dispels these objections without sounding defensive."

She acknowledged the objections held silently by many in the audience: that the policy paper that this was more “nanny state”, “do gooding” liberal “trivia” and then met them head on. “Nanny state”? “Do gooders”? “Trivia”? Yep, you’ve got it. Katy Gordon took the other side’s frames and broke them open with powerful stories.

Her stories were followed by some explanation and statistics, reinforcing the reasons for the proposed reforms.

At the very end of the speech came the “happy ending” that the proposals could bring.

"As Nick Clegg is stressing this week, if we want things to be different, we should choose something different.

"We need to think about Mary-Ann crying herself to sleep because she can’t attain the ideal body image, of Trisha worrying herself sick over how to cope."

And in very specific ways, Katy Gordon’s stories reinforced the values that her audience wanted to hear – that the Liberal Democrats are “different” - more “radical”, readier to take risks.

Why can’t more Liberal Democrat politicians use stories this effectively?

(1) Annette Simmonds, Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins (Amacom, 2007)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's partly because of the way in which we're taught to campaign, which comes across into the speeches of our campaigners. They're told to hit particular messages, rather than weaving them into a narrative structure. For example, the letter-writing training at Conference emphasised reinforcing messages via presentational tricks such as bolding and spacing of paragraphs, rather than telling a story. Certainly, we're told to use real-world examples to increase emotional impact, but these aren't as effective as they could be unless it's accepted that they should be set within the context of the letter's tiny fragment of the Lib Dem story.