The Power and Pitfalls of the Anecdote

I recently read a very interesting article on the BBC news website. It concerned the rise in the use of anecdotes by politicians in the UK.

In the modern political landscape the need to hold the centre ground and win the support of the middle classes has meant the difference between the parties has become more and more blurred. Commentators have been pouring over that conundrum for several years now and the present coalition government is a clear demonstration of how the battle lines between parties are no longer so obvious. So in a world where red, blue and yellow are merging into a rather dull and uninspiring brown, what can politicians do to make themselves stand out from the crowd?

How about a radical shift in policy? Well yes, that’s a possibility but the threat of the ‘wilderness years’ suffered by the Labour party in the 80s and 90s haunts many a modern politician, regardless of the colour of their rosette. Love or hate New Labour, the aggressive courting of the middle classes and invasion of the middle ground by Tony Blair and his ‘Blairites’ introduced one of the most radical changes to British political strategy in a generation.

So what else? If your party doesn’t stand head and shoulders above the rest then try making your people do so by demonstrating they understand the life of the everyman. At Working Voices we talk about the power of storytelling, how it helps to make sense of a piece of communication and how it can demonstrate the authenticity of the speaker. Storytelling is as old as the hills. Many of the short anecdotes used by politicians are designed for the sound-bite nature of modern media but the principles are the same. What I love about this BBC article though, is the way it illustrates the pitfalls of employing anecdotes. If you don’t get your facts right you could get found out – and that’s not going to do anything for your level of authenticity – as illustrated by David Cameron when he referred to meeting a 40 year old Royal Navy veteran of 30 years service… meaning he was sailing the high seas for Queen and country from the age of 10!  Really Mr Cameron?  How very Napoleonic!

And the sheer number, frequency and bite sized nature of anecdotes being employed by politicians will surely diminish their effectiveness. The story about how “eighty four year old Mrs Jones, who I met in Taunton the other day, told me just how much she relied on her winter fuel allowance” is just becoming the norm.  And like so much other political speak, these anecdotes run the risk of simply blending into the brownish coloured background noise of modern political rhetoric.  Surely the important thing is that there is a policy that ensure Mrs Jones keeps her winter fuel allowance and someone is talking passionately about that, not simply that the masses know a politician had a nice chat with her about it?  Is that the best an electorate can expect of modern political rhetoric? Ah well, call me old-fashioned…


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