Politics and the art of story-telling

I feel a little sorry for David Cameron, whose appearance on the first TV Leaders’ Debate has been criticised for failing to be entirely factual in his re-telling of anecdotes used to make his political points.

OK, so his “recent” visit to a Humberside police station happened last year, and the cost of a new Lexus isn’t exactly £73,000. But does that invalidate the point he was making?

We expect our politicians to be honest – certainly;  but don’t we also want them to be instructive and inspirational.  A good communicator will always use examples, if not stories, to illustrate a point, or to bring colour to an otherwise dry message.  Dogma or political point-scoring is hardly the best way to garner support, and we should welcome politicians telling us stories and drawing on real experiences to communicate their messages.  Surely, we don’t expect those stories to be scrupulously detailed and correct.  Based on fact, yes, but true?

Of course, a carefully selected, well-told story can communicate ‘truths’ which a factually-correct account of an incident might not.  Does it really matter for instance, whether or not the Good Samaritan crossed the road to assist the person beaten and robbed by thieves?  Or whether there were five or six fish to go with the loaves which fed the starving thousands?

Not that I’m comparing Cameron to Christ, by the way.  But the comparison here will help to illustrate what the problem is in the case of Cameron.

Jesus Christ got away with his various stories because he had a close connection to the people about whom and to whom he was recounting them.  There was an understanding, an engagement, a ‘veracity of experience’, let’s call it – if not in the experience itself, then in the telling.  The best story-tellers – whether novelists or simple tale-spinners – demonstrate an acute engagement with the experience they are re-telling.  Did Defoe need to travel to a desert island to convey the daily trials and difficulties experienced by Crusoe?  No, but the language – with its laboured, methodical, attention to detail – takes us there, and gives the reader a genuine belief in the ‘veracity’ of the narrator.

Cameron’s problem is that he cannot really communicate that ‘veracity of experience’.  He appears detached from the very people he’s talking about or wanting to connect to.  His language is, inevitably, the language of a politician – and his experience feels far removed.  As the leader of the Party, he’s further away.  And, as an old Etonian from a wealthy background, the extent to which he can convey a sense of engagement and connection with ordinary people is becoming very tenuous indeed.

The telling of illuminating and insightful stories is one thing, but if Cameron is serious about demonstrating his experience of the needs and desires of ordinary people, then he needs to be a little more careful about his selection of stories and the honesty with which he tells them.

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