Why Politicians’ Rhetoric Turns Off Audiences

Should we feel sorry for politicians? Things used to be so much easier back before technology created an instant and indelible recording of everything said and made available for all. Caught between the crosshairs of traditional media and social media there really is nowhere to hide from the words which come out of their mouths these days.

For example, as the instantly infamous ‘mini budget’ introduced by new and now former UK Prime Minister Liz Truss began to unravel, the new Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, was put forward to defend the government’s position. Up against Kay Burley from Sky News, he fell into the familiar defensive stance of dodging the question by twice repeating a list of government ‘achievements’ instead.

As the feisty presenter attempted to cut him short and return to her point, Mr Cleverley told her, while looking rather pleased with himself. “If your viewers want to know what I said, they can just re-watch what I said, rather than what you said I said.”
“They can,“ Ms Burley snapped back. ”And you know what, hundreds and thousands will be viewing it on Twitter as well. So let’s see what they think about it.”

Is it any wonder that politicians in the public eye stick so readily to the script drummed into them by party spin doctors? One false move gets paraded front and centre for all the world to playback as many times as they wish, thenceforth to hang around like space junk floating around political orbit until the next gaffe when the clip gets dusted off and rolled out again.

While there is clearly good reason to play it safe when bowled a potential hand grenade by a member of the media, this ‘stick to the script’ tactic, using repetition to deflect from the real question, wins no favour with voters. These performances are wooden, disingenuous and often alienating. The viewers and listeners know it and more savvy politicians know it too.

This tactic of repetition engages an audience, but in a negative way – like the belligerent grandparent who bores the pants off everybody at the family get together by not listening to anyone else while loudly repeating their own opinions.

In the same vein, trashing the wonderful (if used correctly) ‘rule of three’, which has reinforced statements of intent from Abraham Lincoln to Barack Obama and Julius Caesar to Steve Jobs, just looks amateurish when its not convincing. Where Tony Blair scored big with ‘Education, Education and Education,” Liz Truss most spectacularly bombed with her soundbite focus on ‘Growth, Growth and Growth’, days before her ambitious budget was almost entirely dismantled.

While it may get a cheap cheer at a party conference, the public are more cynical. What they crave from their public figures is more authenticity and politicians and their spin doctor handlers frequently fail to appreciate the damage empty rhetoric and a policy of ignore and repeat does to their credibility. The interesting thing is that those who make a habit of expressing themselves more freely tend to be more media resilient for it.

Boris Johnson once bragged, rather cynically, “I’ve got a brilliant new strategy which is to make so many gaffes, that no one knows what to concentrate on. You pepper the media with so many gaffes that they are confused.” Yet he had a point. If you make a habit of speaking your mind, your audience becomes accustomed to it and accepts that’s who you are. For example, compare James Cleverly’s Kay Burley encounter with her interview with Mick Lynch. He failed to be rattled by her offensive and his use of plain talk to rebuff accusations left his interviewer somewhat clutching at straws. Train strikes are universally unpopular but his no nonsense interview style was a hit with many voters for its honesty.

Answering a question honestly, even if it’s a truth that people might not want to hear, is far more appealing than rote repeating things for the sake of it. These devices, fuelled by fear of fall out, may provide a short term defensive position, but they do little to foster confidence in an audience. The next generation of politicians would do well to learn from the poor lessons being demonstrated by the present crop unless of course they are headed for the Jungle…