Word Forge

Election manifestos and what they can teach us about content

If nobody’s reading, what’s the point in writing?

Last week David Laws, drafter of the Lib Dem’s election manifesto, subjected himself to a grilling by Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis. “On page 130 of your manifesto…” began Ms Maitlis only to be interrupted by Mr Laws:

“I’m impressed you made it to page 130.”

It was tongue in cheek, of course, but consider this: also last week, Ruth Cadbury, newly beleaguered Labour candidate for Brentford and Isleworth, was asked what was, on the face it, a fairly simple question for a Parliamentary candidate. “What’s in your manifesto?” was the query. It took the best part of a minute for her to think of something.

Election manifestos are a curious document. Hot topics for a couple of weeks every 5 years or so, they’re then forgotten until someone breaches a promise they made in a document very few people read. How do we know next to no-one reads them? Well, Ruth Cadbury aside, because a dozen vox pops have confirmed that if we’re barely likely to vote, then we’re sure as hell not likely to spend time reading about which way we’re not going to vote.

Number crunching

Perhaps there’s a manifesto out there that has discovered a format that drives readership, but UK parties don’t appear to have found it yet despite a considerable variance in the length of their pledge documents. SNP wins the brevity award with a relatively brusque 56 pages. The rest fall between 64 (Plaid Cymru) and 86 (Labour) with the exception of the Lib Dems, who manage a bum-numbing 158 pages. No wonder David Laws was impressed.

Yet if no-one’s reading, clearly even the SNP’s effort isn’t good enough. This despite the fact that each of the manifestos is perfectly well written, uses engaging language, and is generously spaced and peppered liberally with white space and big aspirational images. All right, I’ll confess I haven’t read them all either but I have managed a quick skim.

So why aren’t we reading – and what does that mean for those of us who aren’t Dave, Ed, Nick, Nicola or Nigel?

Overcoming the filter

Increasingly, experience has so attuned us to what’s coming next that we’re conditioned to respond a certain way. Conventional wisdom and an ingrained cynicism of what politicians say tells us manifestos aren’t worth reading, so we don’t. “They’re all the same.” “They’ll promise you the earth, and say anything to get into power.” “There’s no point in voting,” say the man or woman on the street with depressing regularity.

The same is true of marketing copy. Hackles rise before the direct mail is opened. Bounce rates (the rate at which visitors leave a website from a particular page) punish anyone who demands more than the briefest moment to put their message across. And certain phrases we’ve all seen from a gazillion websites, become the written equivalent of white noise, informational landfill that takes up space but really doesn’t do very much.

Copywriting landfill – a personal hitlist

  • Customer service is important to us
  • We’re proud … (to announce anything that doesn’t genuinely warrant real pride)
  • We’ve got Christmas all wrapped up
  • Our quality is second to none
  • We do things differently (before going on to show that, actually, you don’t)

The problem with these phrases comes from a sheep-like mentality to sound like everyone else. Everyone else talks about how important quality is, so if we don’t do the same we’ll appear as though we’re entirely cavalier about quality, won’t we? Well no, actually.

Instead, you could say something that really strikes a chord and show what you mean instead of telling it. “Jane has been in the warehouse since 6.00am this morning making sure the latest order is safely on its way. She’ll be doing the same with your order,” sounds infinitely more personal and caring than “We’re passionate about quality.” It’s more fun to read too, which increases the chances that someone will.

If nobody’s reading, there’s no point in writing. So be your own harshest editor. Crop anything that fills space without performing a function. And avoid saying the same thing everyone else says, because why would you want your business to sound like everyone else’s?

Unlike politicians, you don’t have to break down quite the same wall of cynicism. Tell the world what you do, who you are and the difference you make in a simple, honest way and people will listen. Just don’t expect them to get to page 130.

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