Edward Staite is an international communications consultant and campaign adviser.
The economy is doing very well – with the UK outperforming all other developed economies. The Conservatives are the most trusted party on the economy, with this also being the most important issue for voters. If only the 45 per cent who believe this also say they would vote Conservative next year.
The reality is that polling for the party is stuck around the 32 per cent mark. While nearly every Conservative seems confident the polls will move the right way in 2015, more must be done to make this happen.
Conference season will soon be over and the General Election phony war will begin. It is thus time for the Conservative Party to change the way it – and all other politicians – speaks to voters, and starts to use the language they use.
In many ways, the work of the last year has helped to establish the language of the upcoming election. This was highlighted in the way Labour, despite ridiculing the Conservative “Long-term economic plan” phrase, used “Labour’s plan for Britain’s future” for their conference. It seems that voters like politicians with a plan.
This successful strategy should be built on over the next eight months. Which is what this short memo aims to help you to do.
Don’t rely on David Cameron
Polls tell us that Ed Miliband is deeply unliked while polling on Cameron is broadly neutral. Where problems lie is that the Conservative brand is lagging far behind that of the Labour Party.
While this leads many Conservatives to conclude that the coming lection must be as presidential as possible – to highlight the choice is between David Cameron and Ed Miliband – voters’ perception of what the Conservatives stand for must be improved too.
Furthermore, while David Cameron is the Conservatives’ star broadcast performer, the way we all consume the news has changed radically from even five years ago. This means that Conservatives cannot rely on a clip from David Cameron on the 10 o-clock news to get the party messages across to voters, no matter how well it is delivered.
It is everyone’s responsibility to get the party’s message across, as a way to improve the perception of the party but also to increase the chances of actually having these messages heard in the first place.
When in a debate situation, such as a broadcast interview, it is essential that party spokespeople don’t get bogged down in tit-for-tat arguments bandying around statistics, which mean a lot to the Westminster bubble but very little to anyone else. Statistics are remote, impersonal and often seen as irrelevant to people watching at home. It is much better to use a specific example of something people see in their everyday lives.
A Minister said to me recently: “It is on the big picture stuff we win”. He was right – so why then do so many spokespeople get drawn into heated exchanges on points of obscure detail?
Use small word and short sentences
Apart from the fact that these are then far more likely to be picked up by the media and reported, this is how the majority of voters communicate.
At the time of Douglas Carswell’s defection it was comedic to have reports talking him up as a great political communicator then quoting him saying “We have had a duopoly for many decades. Look at how the country has been run. It has been a competition for cliques to sit on the sofa.” This is exactly the kind of language that turns voters off, and makes politicians – yes, UKIP ones too – seem from another planet.
Using longer words is a trait of someone looking to impress or deceive. Speak plainly instead. This isn’t dumbing down but does reduce the chance of your words being mis-understood.
Stop using phrases only politicians’ use
In any industry there is jargon and acronyms. When training clients to communicate better these are highlighted and removed from messaging documents and speeches. Unfortunately most political messaging documents seem to be made up entirely of the language of Westminster rather than that of Wolverhampton, Waverley or West Kilbride.
What looks effective on paper may fail to resonate in reality. Always imagine the words are being spoken to a family across a kitchen table or over a cup of tea in a pensioner’s lounge. No one says, “fighting like ferrets in the sack” or that the “sums don’t add up”; very rarely do people “have questions to be answered” and nothing this side of the 1950s has caused anyone outside Westminster to say it “beggars belief” or is a “shambles”.
Even worse are military analogies and pseudo-fighting talk that turns people off what you are saying. This is especially true of women. So no more “battles”, “fights” or “dying in a ditch”.
The morning after Miliband’s conference speech, media coverage was focused on the Labour leader forgetting to talk about the deficit. While this was a considerable omission by Miliband, the reports of his error will damage him by adding to the narrative of Miliband being a bit of a joke figure, rather than on the substance itself.
The reason is that few people on their way to work reading the Metro on a train or listening to the radio while on the school run will make the connection between “the deficit” and their family finances. They will, however ,understand the story briefed ahead of Miliband’s speech regarding Labour’s pledge to spend more on the NHS. Why? The NHS is something everyone has experience of. It is relevant.
In politics there are frequently “policies”, “programmes”, “initiatives” and summaries of what a party has achieved. How about thinking from a voter’s perspective and telling a story to describe how the Conservative Party has made a working mother of two better off and her life easier?
Another recent example has been the Better Together campaign questioning what currency an independent Scotland might use. This seemed to seed some doubt in the minds of voters as to Alex Salmond’s credibility. However, at no point did Alistair Darling explain clearly why this was a significant issue that would have a direct impact on the lives of Scottish families. If he had done this successfully then I would have expected the No victory to have been larger.
The strategy based around the “Long-term economic plan” has framed the debate – or, if you like, set the context – but bringing relevance to what Conservatives are saying over the next months will be what wins the election.
If you are consistent and credible, you are more likely to be heard. With trust in politics and politicians at an all time low, this is a pretty important concept to grasp and put into action through the language that Conservatives use.
Conservatives cannot claim to be the outsiders, as UKIP will claim themselves to be. Conservatives cannot claim to be offering a change after being in government for the past five years. What Conservatives can offer is a plan that is working backed up with evidence of how people’s lives are better as a result of Conservative policies.
For an individual, credibility is established through stating who you are and then being that person and doing what you said you would. Credibility for a political party can be achieved in exactly the same way – if you explain yourself clearly.
The best messages say what people want to hear. This doesn’t mean misleading people about past records, or being untruthful about what might be achievable in the future. This is about giving voters a positive vision of the UK under a Conservative government.
Miliband and Labour seem happy to talk negatively, particularly about the NHS and schools. If the Conservatives, though, personalise what they say to help people see why things have got better for them, then this will allow voters to relate to what is being said.
Make the next election personal for as many voters as possible by talking directly to them. We saw this with the speeches from David Cameron and Gordon Brown ahead of the independence vote. Triggering an emotional response through communicating with positive, maybe even passionate but certainly aspirational, language is a very good thing.
The right words
The debate has been successfully framed but Conservatives must do more to use the right language to communicate with voters. People are fed up of politicians and politics; the Conservative brand is weak; voters are busy and often don’t hear what the Conservative Party has to say; so the sooner Conservatives start to use the right words to get its message heard the better.