Image courtesy of flickr user PRODFID - UK Department for International Development

Theresa May fails the fundamentals of basic storytelling

Theresa May lost her UK General Election gamble because she failed the fundamentals of basic storytelling.

Rather than engaging or inspiring, motivating the British electorate to support her quest for a larger parliamentary majority she achieved the opposite. Her stock, status and standing as the person to lead the British people as their Prime Minister diminished because of four basic errors in her storytelling.

  1. Lacked authenticity, authority and consistency

Integrity is about matching your words with your actions. Theresa May repeatedly failed to live up to her assertion of being strong and stable. She sought to be a ‘Ruler’ character but came across as someone who would have dithered even when facing the prospect of running across a cornfield.

Great storytellers achieve authenticity by matching their actions with their words. They have authority from acting with integrity, by being consistent in their storytelling.

May failed in every respect.

  1. Failed to tell the story of the future.

The forthcoming Brexit negotiations present an inherently difficult challenge for any communicator. The need to avoid exposing your hand, or revealing a reality of potential heavy costs of any future deal, inevitably make it difficult to discuss or elaborate.

The weakness of most Brand’s storytelling is a failure to harness the story of your future – a sin May was especially guilty of.

Rather than shy away from a story of the future she should have instead talked of a future beyond the Brexit negotiations, of an emerging Greater Britain.

Instead, we have a narrative of British people facing a ‘big black hole of uncertainty’, with no illuminating story beyond, diminishing their story of now. By failing to tell a story of the future she starved her story of now.

  1. Failed to overcome her hero’s ‘Monsters’

The biggest mistake made in storytelling is to position yourself as the hero of the story. It was the voter who should have been the hero of Theresa May’s story.

The great storyteller gets under their hero’s skin, by identifying the monsters they fear, enabling them to overcome, achieve a resolution, leaving them greater, stronger and on the road to happy ever after.

May’s campaign demonised Jeremy Corbyn, putting him centre stage as the Monster to be slain. Yet Corbyn was not the real monster the British electorate feared. Rather the fear of the unknown, the uncertainty, the prospect of a lesser future was at the heart of British people’s anxieties.

Sometimes it can be hard to speak of the deep-seated fears. Yet great storytellers overcome this.

US President Franklin D. Roosevelt seeking to reassure the American public at the height of the Great Depression didn’t endless repeat a slogan of being ‘strong and stable’. In contrast he inspired by getting to the heart of people’s concerns, assuring his audience: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

  1. Used the wrong plot

When May spoke she told a story of ‘All will be well when you vote for me as your strong and stable leader’. She was using the ‘Rags-to-riches’ story plot, posing as the Fairy Godmother with a magic wand to solve everyone’s concerns. She proffered an easy solution rather than addressing the complex shared experience and difficulties faced by the British people.

She would have been better served by using what is called a ‘Journey and return’ story plot. Here the hero goes on a journey, ends up back where they started from, yet they are somehow richer (not necessarily in a material sense), stronger, or more powerful as a result.

This narrative accommodates uncertainties, fears, things going wrong, because it is the ultimate destination that counts, not the short-term pain in-between.

May could have gone even further, by adopting a ‘Rebirth narrative’. Here she tells a story of transformation, not from her, but by inspiring others to harness untapped talents, energies, or resources.

By inadvertently using the wrong story plots May created her own story – of a ‘Tragedy’.

Going forward

Managing your story and its narrative is at the heart of successful and effective communications.

Theresa May ran an election campaign regarded as one of the poorest in living memory. She failed because she failed the fundamentals of basic storytelling.

Will Theresa May learn, as she faces the uphill struggle to overcome adversity, meet the challenges of securing the best Brexit deal for Britain, and create a better future of a Greater Britain?

She has the germ of a great story waiting to be told. Only time will tell if it continues to be a tragedy.

Image courtesy of flickr user DFID

Andy Green is a leading expert in brand storytelling, creative capacity building in communities or teams, and PR strategy.

Posted in Editor's Picks, Public Affairs, Public Relations Tagged with: ,
3 comments on “Theresa May fails the fundamentals of basic storytelling
  1. andygreencreativity Andy Green says:

    Peter -suspect I’d share your observations: she compounded the weakness with her poor storytelling.
    Tony – thanks for the kind words.

  2. Andy ask yourself whether you would put a person with poor interpersonal skills and communication skills with little obvious energy that signals leadership out there as the embodiement of your brand.
    Thatcher chose Henry James, Bernard Ingham, Tim and Peter, Blair had Alaistair,May chose people who insulted her senior civil servants and were vile to Cabinet and party members on whose support she should have relied.
    Remember Peter’s principle “managers rise to the level of their incompetence” because they are promoted on the basis of their performance where a lower level of competence is required.

  3. Tony Cox says:

    Hi Andy – excellent article, great insight.

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