In this election, appearances are everything.

Oh you thought were were witnessing a general election campaign? No, no. I made the same mistake to begin with. What we’re seeing now is something entirely different. A general perception campaign. Every since the leaders’ debates kicked off two weeks ago, only one thing has mattered. Appearances. How they look. How they sound. Whether they’re convincing. Who comes across as honest. Do they look shifty? Who’s making eye contact?  (Nick Clegg cracked that one way before the others, and became Mr Stary Man.) “I thought Gordon Brown came across as human,” I heard one woman say on Radio 4. As opposed to what? An animal? A machine? A Cyberman? Well yes, come to think of it, he does sometimes come across as the last one. After the Lib Dem bounce following the first debate, Brown quickly realised that presentation wasn’t his strong suit. And he said so in the second debate:
“This may have the feel of a TV popularity contest. But in truth, this election is a fight for Britain’s future. Your future and your jobs. If it’s all about style and PR, count me out. But if you want someone to make decisions…”
(I’ll spare you the rest, as he then reverted to Cyberman mode.) You see what he’s doing, don’t you? Facing reality, turning his weakness into a strength, taking the moral high ground and cutting his rivals off at the pass. That said, it’s only so effective. He’s right when he says that presentation isn’t his strong suit. But then neither are his suits, which look baggy and shapeless. Worse, he looks older because he is older, but also because he’s taken the decision not to hide his grey hair – unlike Nick Clegg, whose hair seems to change colour day by day. So sharp suit or baggy suit? Grey hair or raven’s wing? Son of the manse or public schoolboy? It’s all so difficult, isn’t it? But maybe help is at hand.

Manifest destiny

A key element of the parties’ communication strategy is their election manifesto. Have you read them? I have. Well, to be completely honest, I’ve skimmed them. But then, that’s all we seem to do with anything these days. Even schoolchildren don’t read classics all the way through now. Why bother, when you can download a bullet-pointed synopsis online? As communication has speeded up, so our attention span has become shorter. Not for us the turgid prose of those dense documents that littered the political landscape 20 years ago. Remember Labour’s 1983 manifesto? I thought not. It was famously called ‘the longest suicide note in history’ by Gerald Kaufman. So how do the manifestos shape up in the digital age when our attention span rarely exceeds 140 characters? Not too badly, all things considered.
  • The Tories have seven versions of the manifesto, aimed at different audiences and attention spans – from the 250K ‘easy read’ to the high-res 77MB version (good). But the manifesto page is swimming in a sea of tiny text (bad).
  • Labour have just one version, but it’s 77 pages long (bad) and not summarised (bad x2). They also have little cartoon video clips which could amuse or irritate and look a little… laboured (bad). But they have a ‘Share the manifesto’ button so you can upload to Twitter and Facebook (good).
  • The Lib Dems have a roll-your-own approach, so you can pick the topics (family, job, life, money etc.) that most matter to you. You can do the same with video clips, and they even let you embed the manifesto video player in your site (er, no thanks). Add BlackBerry updates and an Obama-esque iPhone app, and you’ve got a manifesto that wins hands down – on presentation, that is. Whether it translates into reality is another question entirely.

The business of politics

So what does all this have to do with real life? With positioning your products, services and company? Everything. Here are just some of the lessons we can learn from the General Perception campaign 2010:
  • Appearances count, which means that often, perception is reality.
  • You have to be where the people are – and that means Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, blogs and anywhere else they hang out.
  • The unexpected happens, so you need to remain flexible. A Clegg Bounce can come from anywhere, so be prepared.
  • Language is powerful. The words you choose matter – so choose them carefully.
  • Tailor your message to your audience, because one size never fits all.
So who gets my vote? Well I think I’ll just float for a little while longer, and check out the ties, the suits and the haircuts. I’ll look into their eyes – because they’re bound to look into mine, now that it’s the done thing – and I’ll see who looks dodgy. Or not. And then, on May 6, I’ll put my cross in the box. But only if the candidate’s got the X Factor. Find out more:
  • Famous last words: Labour’s 1983 manifesto (aka The Longest Suicide Note in History).
  • Decisions, decisions. Still floating? Sky News comes to the rescue with its Who should I vote for? election quiz.
  • Virtual reality. Who’s winning the election online? Tweetminster thinks it has the answer.
  • A bridge too far. No time to plough through Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel Jane Eyre? You could always listen to the abridged audio-book instead.