Connecting with voters: The secrets to electability and leadership

By Nick Smallman

If you want to lead people, you need to connect with them. So why do many of the party leaders in 2015 find it so difficult?

It's sad, really, that in today's world 'how our leaders behave' matters so much in an election campaign. Politics would be much simpler if it was just about policies. But leadership is about people and who they are. It matters – and it could end up deciding who comes out on top this week.

You'd think that communicating would be something all our party leaders would be good at. Actually, we are living in a rather disappointing era of leadership communication. Gone are the giants of yesteryear like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. Every time their successors go on TV they're under pressure because they're painfully aware that if they make a mistake they may lose votes.

I've been studying the way human personalities get affected by stress and know that pressure can significantly damage communication. It affects leadership behaviours among my company's clients at some of the biggest corporations in the world. And today's politicians are no different.  Whether running a business or running a company, the same principles of success apply. Here's my top five…

The likability factor

It sounds obvious, doesn't it? Yet our politicians run scared when it comes to doing what they have to in order to win people over. Taking off the serious, professional mask most of us wear to work every day is harder than it looks. This is what party leaders must do to show off more of themselves, though. If you met them privately most would be interesting and likeable, and yet in public they're not convincing because they're not relaxed enough.

Iain Duncan Smith, who struggled to put his personality out there, was so bad he didn't even get the chance to contest a general election. Gordon Brown, who was quite closed off, was more likely to trigger a negative emotional reaction than a positive one. What a contrast with Nigel Farage, who obviously loves being in the public domain, or Boris Johnson, who's the kind of politician voters instinctively warm to.

What makes a politician likeable comes down to the classic question every American candidate understands: would you like to go for a beer with them? That's another way of asking whether you can relate to that person and appreciate their humanity. Farage, whose whole brand is about his down-the-pub persona, revels in this.

We want to feel we're led by someone we can relate to. Boiled down further, it comes down to authenticity. One of the reasons why Boris does well is people see him as an authentic human being: the hair, the buffoonery, it's obviously all him. He's happy to reveal a little bit of his flaws, even if he gets laughed at, to make that connection.

Feeling the leadership

Authenticity helps, too, when it comes down to the gut instinct judgement voters make about party leaders. They need to instinctively feel the person they're watching is a leader.

The best way to trigger this is to be relaxed, because doing so suggests being in control. The political power of relaxation as a human quality cannot be underestimated. If you see your leader tense, you instinctively don't feel they're in control.

This is why we care so much about authenticity. It matters because it's closely linked to being comfortable in your own skin.

Barack Obama is a master of this. No matter what situation he's in he never seems to lose his temper. He's a wonderful communicator because his body language fits completely with what he's saying.

Here's some questions to ask yourself about Ed Miliband and David Cameron.

  • Is the politician confident and approachable in front of camera?
  • Do they smile easily, move in a confident way, display those alpha qualities we subconsciously demand from their leaders? Are they articulate and do they use accessible language?
  • Do they speak at a sensible pace? Is their voice musical and rhythmic? What language choices do they make – are they factual or aspirational? Are they skilled at answering difficult questions?

Whichever one got the most 'yesses' is probably the one you want more in Downing Street.

Feeling those values

Emotions are much more important than logic in elections. So to win a voter over you have to get them excited by persuading them your aspirations are worth paying attention to – and even worthy of admiration.

The problem right now is everyone's trying to get into the same values camp. There's a traffic jam around the centre ground. So one of the biggest errors of the parties is making their leader the cleverest person in the party, rather than the most charismatic.

The Tories didn't make that mistake in 2005, when David Cameron beat David Davis in the party's leadership election. Cameron was simply a much smoother operator. Where Davis read his speeches from a script from behind a lectern, Cameron stood aside and talked to his audience directly. If you've learned it, he was suggesting to his audience, it's what you feel. There was no barrier between Cameron and Tory party members. And they loved him for it. Ten years later, despite failing to win an overall majority in 2010, he's still their man.

Trust issues

There's nothing worse than voting for someone who doesn't achieve anything. Leaders need to be able to convince everyone they have both the drive and the energy to get their policies implemented.

This is why new leaders have an appeal to them: they have fresh ideas, are full of energy and they're looking to do something that will hopefully make a difference.

Experienced leaders – and by definition prime ministers usually are – face a more difficult challenge. The big dichotomy of modern politics is that a smart leader will be confident enough to evolve their positions as circumstances change. Environmental issues like green taxes or social ones like gay marriage present big challenges to politicians because the problem is the public view any shift as duplicitous. A politician who makes an unsubtle U-turn is basically toast.

Getting elected is not just about convincing voters the party leader really wants to make changes. Far more important is persuading them that they have the willpower and determination to see them through.

Knowing what you stand for

Speaking from the heart about what a leader wants to do and why they think it's important is job number one. Understanding what someone stands for matters.

Voters know if someone is spinning a lie, but they can also sense the opposite – when a politician really believes something is fundamental.

So it's incumbent on the party leader to make absolutely clear the direction he or she is taking their party in. Having a clear vision is vital.

Take the 2004 US presidential campaign. Karl Rove understood the optics of George W Bush delivering the same simple message again and again. John Kerry, by contrast, kept looking for different angles – and lost comprehensively.

In 1997, Tony Blair used his pledge card to great effect. It was ruthlessly market-tested. He knew what people wanted and they understood that – so they voted for him.

Right now, is it clear enough what either David Cameron or Ed Miliband stand for? Are either of them especially likeable? Which is the better leader with the better values – and who can sum up their election pitch best? As the results filter in, we'll finally discover who's done better at answering these questions – and which man will ultimately end up in Downing Street this summer.

Nick Smallman is chief executive of communications training firm Working Voices

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