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