Career politicians need an updated course in communications skills. The old style no longer works, as any simple A|B test could tell them…

The Friday thought has become a Monday musing…

In this age of information, people prefer bitter-
tasting honesty to sugar-coated spin

What do Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn have in common? It certainly isn’t their politics. They are arguably at opposite ends of the spectrum if their public speeches are to be believed. Yet they have both upset polls by gaining popularity within us unwashed masses, aka ‘the general public’.

What they share is a communication style that goes against political traditions of recent years. When asked a question, they actually answer it. They don’t ignore it and instead answer the question they would like to have been asked. They don’t seem to worry too much about whether the answer is popular, or even appropriate in some cases. And they are both members of a political system that thinks they are just a temporary anomaly to be mocked and dismissed. A plan that isn’t working out well on either side of the Atlantic.

Early in his leadership, Jeremy Corbyn made headlines after saying he wouldn’t push the button to launch a nuclear weapon. This ensured that military leaders joined newspaper owners and politicians in condemning him as unfit for consideration as a future prime minister. Whilst it might not be a good idea to voice that unspoken truth* – given Britain is unlikely to ever be first in launching a nuclear missile, there is little to be gained from being second – it was a direct answer on the spot to a difficult question.

The first test of Corbyn’s leadership came in a bi-election last December. Many polls and pundits predicted Labour would do badly and possibly even lose what used to be considered a ‘safe’ seat. Instead, Labour won and increased their share of the vote to 62.2%. Second place went to UKIP with 23.8% – another party with a leader not following the rules of Political Media Skills 101.

Why do the polls and political experts keep getting it wrong?

Politicians, of all people, should understand that how you communicate matters more than what you communicate. The ‘how’ that works has changed but most politicians and media moguls haven’t caught up. Enter A | B testing.

A | B testing is a technique that first became popular in web site design. The concept is simple. Instead of going through periodic redesigns of a web site, you test the old style against the new – you find out what people actually like versus what they say they would like. Direct half of visitors to the old page (A) and half to the new page (B). Analyse the statistics and adopt the style that consistently performs the best. Rinse and repeat.

A great lesson in how to use A | B testing was shared by Wired magazine a few years ago. (It is a great read about the most effective business strategy of the current time – make small incremental adjustments quickly…)

…executives found that crisp, clear prose was outperforming hyped-up buzzwords on certain parts of the homepage.

But in previous years, the opposite had been true. Why?

They talked and talked about it, but no one could figure it out.

[Then] they realized that it simply didn’t matter.

And that last sentence is critical. The desire to understand the difference was to excuse it, to dismiss it as a mistake and stick with tradition, the comfort zone. But what was their goal? To increase site visits. Why user preferences had changed didn’t matter. Act on the data…

This is where the polls and pundits are going wrong. They are stuck with their traditional view of politics and ignoring any data that doesn’t fit the narrative. They are relying too much on asking people what they would do (‘polling’) instead of analysing what people actually do – votes count.

In this age of global access to information and social networks, where tribes of like-minded people can easily gather, the currency of authenticity is growing in value. Bland non-committal answers or sugar-coated spin are not welcome.

In the UK, it would be interesting to see what media skills are taught by that favoured degree course for wannabe political leaders – Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) at Oxford University. Because somebody needs to update the curriculum. The A|B test results are out there for all to witness.

* Let’s face it. If Yes, Prime Minister had this figured out back in the late 80s/early 90s, it shouldn’t be such a surprise:


ducksFeatured image: Author’s own photo

…Photoshopped authenticity. The original contained one duck too many 🙂


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