Sunday, 18 April 2010

Cameron, Clegg show how stories can work - and how they can fail

Conservative leader, David Cameron, told a few anecdotes -- stories -- in Thursday’s TV debate. Politicians are often told, by people like me, that stories are the best way to get their messages across. But Cameron is being pilloried for telling stories.

According to the Leftfootforward blog, Cameron’s claims that Humberside Police had “five different police cars and that they were just about to buy a £73,000 Lexus” have been disputed by the police. The Met has challenged Cameron’s jibes about “form-fillers” as misleading and out of context.

You might want to have a play with the David Cameron anecdote generator. On a more serious note, Max Atkinson has asked whether all three leaders may have told too many anecdotes on Thursday night.

He may have a point. But I think the real issue may be the sorts of stories they told. The Australian consultancy Anecdote have suggested some tests for what makes stories have impact:

  • "Clarity—you hear or read the story once and you get it. It's simple, clear and has a good narrative structure (time markers, characters, begin-middle-end).
  • Emotional—it gets you in the gut. It doesn't matter what emotion it evokes but impactful stories evoke at least one strong emotion.
  • Believable—it doesn't sound like bullshit. Facts and figures help but not too many. Details help with real people's names and specific dates and times.
  • Transport—it transports you to relive the experience. You can see, hear, touch, smell and taste the experience.
  • Surprising—it throws you a curve ball that you weren't expecting.
  • Relevant—does it talk to the topic under investigation."

Cameron told an anecdote about meeting a “40-year-old black man” who had served in the Navy “for 30 years” and agreed that immigration was “out of control”. This may have been surprising but it wasn’t believable. The man’s age and experience, as recounted by the Tory leader, didn’t add up. Even more importantly, the accuracy of the story, like the police Lexus and the form fillers, has been called into question. The man in question has now disputed Cameron’s account and said that “Britain needs immigrants”.

I for one didn’t get the relevance of the Lexus story at the time and it evoked no particular emotional response.

Of the Anecdote tests, “emotional” and “relevant” seem the most important in political debates. When a politician uses an anecdote, it should help to express their overall narrative about what has gone wrong (and right) and their vision of the future. The anecdote should illustrate or set up a specific solution, a way forward that fits into the politician or party’s overall image. This is a political version of what Stephen Denning calls a springboard story. Cameron kept failing to provide clear solutions, even with his “my mother was a magistrate in Newbury” anecdote.

Nick Clegg told at least one good political springboard story with his anecdote about how restorative justice has been used successfully in Sheffield, where he has his own constituency. He explained how a Liberal Democrat solution has been tried somewhere and used stats to show that it has worked. And it tied into his big narrative, this time about how the other parties keep talking tough on crime and keep failing to deliver.

One more reason that he triumphed.

Posted via web from Neil Stockley

Friday, 9 April 2010

Fear and loathing on the UK campaign trail

Wednesday’s Daily Telegraph framed the UK general election as “a battle between hope and fear”.

You can guess which party they think matches each emotion. But the election will come down to emotions – how voters feel about the parties, leaders, issues and candidates.

During the 2008 US presidential primaries, Newsweek’s Sharon Begley argued that the debate about whether the electorate is guided by its head or its heart, by reason or emotion, is over.” She went on to say:

“When voters consider candidates' positions, they are drawn to the candidate who assuages fear, inspires hope, instills pride or brings some other emotional dividend.”

Sharon Begley found most experts agreeing that fear and anxiety are the strongest emotions in terms of their ability to drive decisions in the voting booth. The runner-up emotion was anger.

This week, Begley assesses the Democrats’ prospects in November in light of the healthcare reforms. She draws on a new paper posted on the Web site of the journal Psychological Science. Two researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, have found that anxious voters are more likely to put real effort into searching out information about where candidates stand on the key issues and then vote for those they agree with most. But angry voters rely more on vague, general information, with policy positions playing little part in their decisions.

Begley suggests that Democrat incumbents might tailor their messages according to whether voters are fearful (and therefore open to being swayed with more information about healthcare policy) or angry (in which case appeals to party or other generalities seem the best gambit).

That all sounds a little bit hopeful but for now, the more interesting question is, how does this theory play out in the UK? The part that fear plays in the parties’ messaging is not hard to see. The Conservatives play on fears that we might have five more years of Gordon Brown as PM. Like all long term governments asking for another term, Labour’s real message is: you can’t risk a change to the Tories. “We cannot cut our way to recovery-but we could cut our way to double-dip recession”, says Gordon Brown. Labour’s ill-conceived “Gene Hunt” poster is another example.

Last year, the accepted wisdom was that voters had written off Labour and it seemed that the Conservatives were on course for a handsome victory. Since January, however, Labour’s poll ratings have recovered slightly, apparently because of a new sense of confidence about the economy. The Conservatives’ ratings for economic competence have fallen. Neither Labour nor the Tories has established a clear, stable lead as the best party to manage the economy (hence the rise of Vince Cable). With the Amherst work in mind, we might interpret that as anxious, recession-bitten voters being more engaged that they were given credit for and giving the major parties a closer look, but still not being convinced.

What about anger? The Tories’ greatest asset in this campaign is, surely, voters’ resentments after thirteen years of Labour. The Liberal Democrats’ campaign narrative plays even more strongly to these emotions, inviting voters to cast “a plague on both their houses”. But the party is too rational in its approach and, perhaps, too romantic about its policies and beliefs to base an entire campaign on anger. The minor parties try to push the anger buttons even harder. More likely, the really angry voters will simply switch off and stay home on polling day.

And let’s not discount the role of hope and optimism in UK election campaigns. The Conservative campaign has looked more sure-footed since they switched to more optimistic messages, with the (less than honest) promises of tax cuts. In 1978, the famous Saatchi and Saatchi poster declared that “Labour isn’t working.” It also said, “Britain’s better off with the Conservatives”. Here we are again.

Posted via web from Neil Stockley

Monday, 5 April 2010

Revealed: the Liberal Democrats' campaign narrative

If you’re still trying to find the Liberal Democrats’ narrative for the general election, you can now see a large part of it.

Here’s Exhibit A: Vince Cable’s closing remarks in the Channel 4 Ask the Chancellors debate last Monday night.

“The Labour government led us into this mess … The Tories presided over two big recessions in office, they wasted most of the North Sea oil revenue, they sold off the family silver on the cheap."

“Now they want to have another turn to get their noses in the trough and reward their rich backers. The Liberal Democrats are different. We got this crisis basically right. We are not beholden to either the super rich or militant unions.”

Neither Labour nor the Tories can be trusted. They’ve both let us down for years and they’re both in the pocket of vested interests.

And here’s Exhibit B: the new guerilla marketing campaign for “the Labservatives”, which accuses Labour and the Conservatives of being interchangeable, offering the same failed politics, more of the same

Both exhibits follow on from Nick’s conference speeches and the New Year’s message. The Lib Dems are using the archetype of “stopping the rot at the top”, inviting voters to cast a plague on both their houses – “they’re just as bad as each other”. This is the same narrative that the Liberals used in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1979 general election campaign, for instance, David Steel framed Labour and the Tories as “two Conservative parties", one a failed government, the other a reactionary alternative.

So, after all the angst about the Liberal Democrats’ need for a narrative, we’re replaying an old tune from the days of Jo Grimond, Jeremy Thorpe and David Steel. And, as Max Atkinson has pointed out, “they’re just as bad as each other” is the sort of “yah-boo” politics that Liberals and Liberal Democrats have always deplored.

That’s not quite the end of it though. These days, the party includes specific policies and issues in the story and makes it more positive. In 1997, the last time a government was on its way out, Paddy Ashdown told people that every vote the Lib Dems received, every seat the party won was a vote for real change. He told people what those changes were and looked and sounded like a man of action.

This time, Nick Clegg has his four reasons to vote for the Liberal Democrats. They have a common theme, fairness, but so far, the linking story, or archetype, is harder to see. And he still has to show how a third party could use greater political influence to turn those promises into a reality. Otherwise, the story won’t have a happy ending.

Posted via web from Neil Stockley