As a sideline I run a site called Polifiller.com. The site automatically strips clichés out of politicians’ speeches. It’s a simple idea – no more sophisticated than a couple of coconut shells tied together by string. All the clichés and doublespeak in our database come from submissions from political correspondents, pundits and our own combing through countless speeches to find repetitive phrases. You paste a speech into the box on the site, press a button and it draws a red line through the waffle.
Repetition has always been part of campaigning orthodoxy. The mantra goes that if you repeat the message often enough it will take hold. I no longer agree. Why? Because politicians increasingly use the same phrases as their opponents. I experienced the impact of this recently when I was doing some canvassing. The entrenched view on many doorsteps was not in favour of a particular party. Instead it was the view that they’re all the same. No surprise perhaps that the old battle between Labour and Conservatives has been replaced by a multi-party mash-up.
Clearly all policies and political beliefs are not the same. The core values of a Labour politician are probably not going to overlap with UKIP’s. But the problem is that the sanitised, risk-free prose of all politicians – Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and every one else – gets in the way of a decent understanding of what our politicians really believe. They all seem to be doing cover versions of the same song.
The Australian politician and former Prime Minister, Paul Keating, a master of the political put-down, famously welcomed his opposite number, Andrew Peacock, back to leadership of the Opposition after some time spent in the wilderness. Flashing his teeth, Keating then said: “Does a soufflé rise twice?” Arguably there is a bit too much soufflé in the lexicon of the modern British politician.
There’s a famous anecdote that I use too often from a power tools company that went away and asked itself a fundamental question: “What do we sell? Drills or holes?” They concluded that in the eyes of the customer they sold holes. This moment of epiphany revolutionised the way that they communicated with their customers and helped them to increase their market share. If politicians want to increase their ‘market share’ they could do worse than think in a bit more detail about what their customers truly want and express that clearly.
I run a PR agency and my litmus test with any creative work is “does this persuade me to buy?”. If it doesn’t, I start again. I wonder how many times politicians look at themselves in the mirror and try to persuade themselves through the power of carefully-chosen, heartfelt words rather than resorting to the same old tired vocabulary.