Spinning a story, finding a fix and keeping a smile on your face

[Image courtesy of Robert Sharp at Flickr Creative Commons]

I’ve almost finished Call me Dave, the unauthorised biography of David Cameron that came out last autumn. You may remember it caused quite a stir at the time, relating as it did the dodgy initiation ceremony he was supposed to have been involved in at Oxford, quickly dubbed ‘pig-gate’.

But it wasn’t the porcine pranks that caught my attention (or at least, not only).

It was the picture that emerged of Cameron as a slightly wishy-washy, middle-of-the-road type who has no strongly held political beliefs. By the time he was elected leader of the Conservative party, he’d only been an MP for four years. 

So what accounts for his success? Some will say it’s his public-school charm and his privileged background, combined with an address book to die for. Certainly there is an element of that, it seems to me.

But it’s also his relentless focus on solutions, his attention to detail and his positive, can-do attitude. Even as a special adviser (or ‘spad’) back in the 90s, he mastered briefs faster and better than anyone, and always came up with a definite course of action.

His years spent in PR at Carlton didn’t do him any harm either, as he learned how to spin a story and always focus on the upside. 

As I read, I thought about how presentation is so important. You may not be the best, or the brightest, or the fastest, or the cheapest. But if you make the right moves and send out the right signals, you can streak ahead.

Here 10 Dave-like things you can do today to change how people see you: 

  1. Laugh at yourself. Recently I was buying something in Holland & Barrett. I gave the chap my loyalty card, then paid using my debit card. As I was putting in my code, he asked me if I had an H&B loyalty card. “Yes, I said,” slightly shortly. “I just gave it to you.” “Sorry,” he replied with a smile. “Memory of a fish.” We both laughed and my irritation disappeared.
  2. Admit your mistakes. Last weekend, I got an email from Pure Gym telling me about restricted access to my club at Canary Wharf. Just one problem – I live in Cambridge. I rolled my eyes heavenwards. And then, an hour later, came a self-deprecating email apologising for their error. Just like the Fish Man, they’d won me back. 
  3. Say it like you mean it. “All I can say is I’m sorry,” said somebody to a friend of mine by way of apology for a customer service #fail experience. He told me this actually made it worse – as if she wasn’t really sorry. It was almost as if she was minimising the problem and throwing in a meaningless apology to appease him. “If only she’d just said ‘I’m sorry’, that would have made all the difference,” he moaned. 
  4. Be unprofessional. Nobody likes corporate speak, and yet we all use it. And the bigger the organisation, the worse the problem. And yet they’re the ones that most need to connect with their readers, users and prospects. So drop the corporate mask, and be yourself in everything you say and do. Challenge the stereotype, just as Dave did, detoxifying the Tories, rewriting the right-wing script and connecting with voters.
  5. Go off-message. “It’s crazy,” said the meter reader to me a couple of months back. “It’s Health & Safety gone mad.” He was talking about the rule that says he and his colleagues aren’t allowed to take off their shoes before entering a customer’s house. Which means sometimes, they’re refused access. As he joked about the rules-is-rules craziness, he kicked off his shoes and read my meter. Off message, but on form. 
  6. Communicate enough – but not too much. Cameron knows all about getting your message out and making sure it’s heard. But it’s a fine line to tread between communicating regularly and bombarding people. The frequency and detail are the two major challenges. So do it regularly, but not too regularly. Include detail, but not too much. Make sure you have something valuable to say, and do the heavy lifting for the reader by summarising ruthlessly. 
  7. Stop talking, start listening. “I need to work on my listening skills,” said a business coach to me at a networking event. No kidding. He spent the next 20 minutes explaining to me why they were important, and how they worked, and how most people get the balance wrong between listening and talking. “We have two ears and one mouth,” he said, clearly pleased with himself, “and we should use them in proportion.” I tried to agree, but couldn’t get a word in. 
  8. If you ask for feedback, take it. Politicians are often very bad at this. They have a pet project, and they look for any and every piece of evidence that will back up their scheme. If they don’t find it, or find something to the contrary, they simply carry on regardless. Just last month, I heard of somebody who asked for honest feedback on their website. When they got it, they exploded – and yet it was sound advice. We all have blind spots, and feedback is vital to the process. But you have to take the rough with the smooth.
  9. Give reassurance at every turn. “All my work comes with a guarantee,” said the bicycle shop guy to me. “And the saddle comes with a 30-day comfort guarantee.” It was one guarantee after another, and I could feel a warm fuzzy feeling as he laid it on thicker and thicker. I didn’t need all that reassurance, as his work is always impeccable. I know it’s guaranteed, but he says it every time. And every time it works. It just does.
  10. Don’t focus on the problem. This is one I struggle with. I can see why: often, dissecting the problem is far more fun than finding a solution. How could I have done that? I ask myself. Look what a mess it is! I say. This will never be right, I predict with grim certainty. And yet where does that get me? Or you? Nowhere. So do what Cameron does: tell yourself ‘we are where we are’, and come up with a solution, however imperfect. In the long run, it saves time, effort and heartache. 

Dave’s not perfect, but he’s good at what counts – mastering the detail, spinning the story and finding fixes. Maybe if I follow in his footsteps – initiation ceremonies (alleged) aside – I’ll be unstoppable too. 

Just Call me Kevin.