Friday, 2 October 2009

Storytelling with impact: Peter Mandelson's speech to the 2009 Labour Party Conference

Peter Mandelson’s speech to the Labour party conference was one of the stand-out political events of the week. I think it’s one of the best pieces of political storytelling we’ve seen all year.

The reasons that the speech worked so well weren’t so much about his passion or his delivery, which was weird in parts. It was impressive because of the stories Mandelson told and the ways he told them.

Let’s start with the easy bits. Any government asking for another mandate always tries to say to the voters, “give it to us more time – we deserve another go”. The subtext is usually “you can’t risk a change to the other side”. When a government is after a fourth term, the “don’t risk it” story is almost always the dominant one.

So it was with Peter Mandelson’s speech:

"The choice between a Conservative party whose judgements on the credit crunch were wrong, or a party providing leadership in the toughest of times . . experience and change with Gordon's leadership. Or the shallowness of David Cameron."

But there was so much more it than that. In trying to galvanise the downcast conference into being “fighters not quitters” and to be “restless for change”, Mandelson followed almost all the rules of good storytelling and added a few twists of his own.

Stephen Denning says that the first step in telling a powerful story is to gain the audience’s attention.(1) One method he suggests is to admit a vulnerability, or to making mistakes. Near the beginning of his speech, Peter Mandelson said:

"I love working for this party and those who work so hard for it – even if, at times, perhaps not everyone in it has loved me. I understand that. I made enemies, sometimes needlessly. I was sometimes too careless with the feelings and views of others.

"But please accept this. It was for one reason only. I was in a hurry to return this party to where it should be – in government to help the hard-working people of our country. I know that Tony said our project would only be complete when the Labour Party learned to love Peter Mandelson. I think perhaps he set the bar a little too high. Though I am trying my best."

By telling this story, Mandelson was also reminding the conference of “who he is” – a Labour man, through and through. The neat bit of self-deprecation came after this:

"I did not hesitate for too long [return to the government last year]. The pull was too great. The pull of coming back to serve my country when it was in the midst of the global whirlwind that had hit us. The pull of coming back to serve this Prime Minister, our leader, Gordon Brown – who was gripping this financial crisis, leading the fightback against it when so many others seemed caught in the headlights. But there was something else. It was the pull of coming back to serve our party. I did not choose this party. I was born into it. It is in my blood and in my bones."

The sub-text was an “I know what you are thinking” story. OK, you’ve never really liked me, Mandelson was telling delegates, but I’m going to validate your objections and then answer them head on.(2)

And Mandelson followed another classic piece of classic attention-gaining advice. He created his own frame, using the word “fight” or “fightback” nine times in his speech .

Denning’s second story telling step is to stimulate desire. He says that you can do it by telling a positive story - what Denning calls “a springboard story”:

"A simple story about an example where the change is already happening [that] connects with an audience at an emotional level and generates a new story in their minds that leads to action."

Mandelson told a springboard story – one of the best and riskiest I have seen in politics. For the story was really about himself.

"We must face facts. Electorally, we are in the fight of our lives. And, yes, we start that fight as underdogs. But if I can come back, we can come back."

Another way to stimulate desire is to offer a positive challenge. Mandelson’s “we’re fighters not quitters” rhetoric certainly did that. So did his closing preroration, with its call to “win for our party, for our country, for the British people.”

Denning also suggests “externalising the obstacles to change” by, for instance, casting people as antagonists or aliens. To Labour eyes, it’s obvious who these are – David Cameron, George Osborne and the rest of the Conservative Party.

But hang on: with Labour now into its thirteenth year in office, aren’t the Tories (or, as many of us say, the Liberal Democrats) the “change”? So Mandelson reached a lot higher, moving to reclaim the word “change” and reframe it in Labour’s terms. He told a story about how Labour would pursue “activist” strategies to ensure that Britain meets its full economic potential but that the Tories “just don’t get it”. He said that on three counts -limiting the recession’s damage to the economy tackling the deficit “without eating into the fabric of people’s lives” and investing in future growth, “the Tories are on the wrong side of the argument”. He went on to use the word “change” nineteen times..

In doing this, and with his claims of how the Tories have changed their image but not their substance, Mandelson was following Stephen Denning’s third step for sucessful storytelling. This is to “reinforce with reasons”, by telling “minimalist” stories that are usually set in the present or immediate future.

"I hope [Cameron and Osborne] can find the humility to acknowledge that at every point Tory policy would not just have put the recovery at risk but have made this recession deeper, longer and far far worse. As we get closer to the election, I want to see them and Tory candidates across the country explaining why they wouldn’t provide the money to help small businesses and families in this recession when they needed it most. No extra money to boost family incomes. No money for the tax deferment for business and no VAT cut. No additional money to help those who have tragically lost their jobs. No funding for the car scrappage scheme. They got it plain wrong at every step along the way."

No, 100 speeches like this between now and next May won’t save the Labour party. Some of the logic was faulty. Mandelson's many critics may call the speech self-indulgent and self-justifying. But after months of dreary lists and boring slogans, Mandelson told Labour exactly the sort of story they wanted to hear. It was no wonder the delegates cheered and the media swooned.

(1) Stephen Denning, The Secret Language of Leadership (Jossey Bass, 2007)
(2) See Annette Simmons, Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins (Amacom, 2007)

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