How to talk so the electorate will listen and listen so the electorate will vote

As the Politerati and their entourages pick over the celebrations and commiserations of last week’s Scottish Local elections, it’s a good time for those of us who value retrospectives to think about what have we actually learned from the electorate. Given the drastic changes and events since the 2017 election, incredibly not much changed electorally but why no shockwave results in Scotland?

Why do parties with policies that seem to resonate with public opinion, not translate into votes? Why isn’t voter registration & turnout at record highs? What are the barriers to overcome to get people to listen to policies that could improve their lives? How long can even ‘successful’ election results be relied on, just by being the ‘least worst’ option?

This all made me think of a book that did the rounds among mum friends at Toddlers group years ago when we tried to make sense of navigating communication with the wee people in our charge. Mealtimes were particularly challenging with visual indicators of dissatisfaction. Thrown plates of food, tears and clamped-shut jaws were common. Literal ‘fingers in ears’ to pleas to eat the healthy vegetables. Too often roundly rejected, even with the best airplane noises of encouragement deployed to ‘land the broccoli’.

What were we missing? We turned to this book, ‘How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk.

The book’s advice is really pretty straightforward, it’s all about communication. To get them to listen to you, you first have to listen to them. Just building trust through strong two-way communication: simple.

Worth exploring to connect with voters?

Given voters are just older versions of these wee broccoli-refusing people, could this also be the simple ‘trick’ to get voters to sit at our table, engage and respond positively? Forget the plastic gimmicky election tricks and just really listen first before making noises at them.

Let’s start with what we know about tested election campaign tools;

“Eat the broccoli!!”

…is the equivalent of passive broadcasting of party messages via unsolicited leafleting.

It makes a demonstrably negligible difference to land a message and is the worst return on investment to raise awareness to translate to votes. It also has negative consequences of association with junk mail/spam and can build a barrier to engagement. The external factor is, your carefully crafted message on a shiny A5 card will be lost in the noise of a dozen other party leaflets behind doors and compared if the bundle is not taken as a job lot straight to the recycle bin.

Why do parties do it then? Honestly, I think it’s just habit, “it’s what we do and has always been done” which emanates from campaign HQs!

It’s something to do at election time and doing something is always better than doing nothing, right?

Hmm, that depends on whose perspective you look at it from. On the positive side, it may make members feel good to be involved and may even help build a team in the short term but when results don’t reflect the financial and physical efforts, it can quickly flip to a post-election slump in mood, drop in active engagement or even canceled membership.

“What is it about the broccoli?”

What does work then and where should effort & resources be better spent?

Well, the first step is to take your party member hat off for a minute and just think as a voter. What would convince you to read leaflets or listen to a campaigner? Again, those of us who’ve ‘convinced on the doors’ have a common approach; listen, observe, target the message and mostly, show you can be trusted by following up!

“OK, let’s talk about these vegetables”

Door knocking is good but largely used only during elections to understand where a party’s vote already is, to ensure they ‘Get Out To Vote’ on Election Day. Sadly to canvas like a Yodel Driver on Redbull is a missed opportunity and even GOTV is a lot of effort for voters that if ‘sticky’ probably will vote for you without much prompting. If you’re making the effort to spend time in communities, why not optimise the opportunity?

Community gatherings, village/town hall meetings on local and national topics, street stalls, rallies, anywhere really that you can engage directly with people and hear what they have to say, should be grabbed with both hands! You can then understand firsthand how your message is landing!

Why make the effort for direct communication?

⁃   Makes it a personal conversation, harder to ‘bin’
⁃   Interactive and shows effort to go to the voter, ‘taking yourself to their level’ to engage
⁃   Opportunity to deploy all our human communication tools; eye contact, intonation, body language etc., to land a message.
⁃   Observation, who is this voter, what are they likely to engage best on? Allows targeted messages on: health, pensions, education etc. 
⁃   Opportunity to target messaging collateral by having a selection of easy read topic focused leaflet/books to go over together and leave with them to embed message
⁃   Build the team by ‘signing up’ any supporters who want to get more involved 
⁃   Establish local contacts for GOTV to delegate to and speed up and expand this election date effort beyond stable vote
⁃   Critical source of intel on what the electorate actually want from you and HOW they want to be engaged with helps shape palatable policies people will be enthusiastic to vote for

Broccoli today vs lifelong broccoli fan

We seem to focus every election on the same hamster wheel campaigning ‘strategy’ with ever-decreasing enthusiasm from members to deliver it to an ever-resigned electorate. Apathy should be a serious concern for all political parties!

Some voters, so put off by previous broken promises, will put their fingers in their ears and never eat broccoli again. Some will ‘hold their nose’ as they grudgingly consume blanched, bland, boiled, or even reheated broccoli. Some eat it out of habit or even duty, while quietly questioning its actual nutritional value and mumbling “if things don’t change, this time is definitely my last bite” until the next helping is served up!

How about we ditch the reheated mush and go wild? Learn what voters’ tastes really are and make our broccoli, be it tender stem, purple sprouting, or just green, the star ingredient in a flavor explosion! Present the electorate with menus that appeal to even the most discerning of palates and that people just can’t get enough of!

THEN, get the campaign broadcasting going, on all channels with high-quality, simple messages that voters know there’s substance behind and quality ingredients. Playback that you’ve listened to them and created something special, both FOR them and critically, WITH them!

It’s (past) time for politics to move from a transactional “just eat the broccoli (again)”’ to a long-term, mutually trusted relationship with the electorate. Micro campaigning is not easy, it’s hard work but it is worth it if we’re to build a stable electoral base that’s understood and that understands us.

To create a new, thriving independent Scotland we need a store cupboard of ingredients and an array of innovative skills!

How adaptable political parties will be to change, only time will tell. If they do look for inspiration, they’d be wise to look to the grassroots Masterchefs. Not only are they multi-skilled and creative, unencumbered as they largely are by personal political ambition, but they essentially don’t pack up the kitchen at end of election cycles!

Let’s not allow old-school passive political campaigning to try to turn our creative activists into broccoli boilers, let’s instead inspire a nation of chefs to satisfy an electorate of real connoisseurs!

Bon appetite Scotland!

11 replies on “How to talk so the electorate will listen and listen so the electorate will vote”

Fantastic article Allison, so timely as well as we spent 45 mins talking about just this at last nights Branch Exec meeting. (Wish I’d thought of the Broccoli analogy mind …)

ALL Indy supporters need to read this, and learn. Totally agree with your observations 👍

Many thanks Keith! Hope to see you on the independence campaign in beautiful Fife, which has a quality smorgasbord of Indy talent! 😉

Broccoli a la carte. Love it. Just what Scotland needs and not as a side dish but a front and centre generous portion.

Good piece, especially the part about the leaflets ending up in the bin and you’re right, the return for such a lot of effort is questionable.

If parties claim to have environmental credentials it really is a bit mad to continually stick (often the same) leaflet through folk’s doors multiple times.

It would make folk weep to know how many excess leaflets get dumped by parties after an election. More learning and pre planning of areas and advanced commitment from volunteers to compile a rota would give folk a chance to plan. In my experience there’s no real thought behind the order:deliver, equation.

In a 6 week campaign last year which was fundraised on the hoof, we made a key decision at start to ‘run out not throw out’ when it came to leaflets. It was all we really had in timescales so used ‘super Saturdays’ to get big presence to leaflet for visibility.

I can’t guarantee every activist delivered every leaflet on our campaign but we did get them all distributed, just in time for the election.

Constraints of time / money make you think harder about your resources so it creates a good discipline that more cash rich parties could learn from to prevent wastage.

ISP had an interesting approach with a seed card leaflet but cost wise that would be expensive I’d image but showed creativity. We really need creative campaigning!

Broccoli…. I’m convinced and won’t ever throw another tantrum again.
Some are fortunate enough to have a story way to use words to paint the picture. You are one of them with this one not gem. Can I use on our social media please?

Oh thanks Lindsay and yes of course, happy for you to share. We need to get folk talking and discussing ideas and observations again. Even disagreeing doesn’t have to be disagreeable 😁

Excellent article, thank you. I do hope others read the comments here and ask questions. I agree, we need to be creative, innovative and utilise sm platforms to greater effect.
Design the strategy that will give you the best chance for your area, there is no 1 size fits all solution, every area is different.
In my opinion in, engagement is key, people want to talk, ask questions, discuss issues.
Maximise these opportunities, he more people engage with you, then perhaps this may yield better results.
Grasp the opportunity to do something different.
Parties should begin to strategise for early election and what if indyref doesn’t happen in 2023.
There maybe an opportunity for other pro independence parties to grow.
Again, thank you be ready…
Carpe diem.

Great comment and yes in strategy, always ‘be ready’. Control what you can and plan for what you can’t!

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