Soundbites: Theresa May needs to learn that less is always more

As a communication skills trainer I am always keen to stress the value of a well-crafted soundbite. Attaching a colourful, pithy, punchy little phrase to your main talking point will increase your chances of getting your story covered, getting you quoted and generating a strikingly memorable headline.

There are many great examples of soundbites that have resonated down the ages, long after many people have forgotten – or never knew in the first place – when and why they were uttered.

‘That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind’, pronounced by Neil Armstrong when he first stepped onto the moon in 1969, is a very famous example; ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country’, from JF Kennedy’s inaugural address, is another; and so is ‘The lady’s not for turning’, a phrase used by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in her speech to the 1980 Conservative Party Conference, in rebuttal to the suggestion that she might be considering a U-turn on her economic policy.

The problem with ‘strong and stable leadership’

There are many other wonderful examples of soundbites that have reflected glory on their creators. But ‘strong and stable leadership’, repeated countless times in speeches and interviews by Prime Minister Theresa May since the announcement of the snap general election, is not one of them.

The best soundbites are memorable because they are uttered only once by their authors, however many times they might be regurgitated subsequently.

Did Martin Luther King tell us about his dreams every time he made an announcement?

Did Winston Churchill tells us he had nothing to offer us but blood, toil, tears and sweat every time he stood up to speak in Parliament?

Did Hollywood siren Mae West greet every suitor with the line: ‘Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?’

A backlash of irritation, derision and satirical commentary

Of course not – and for good reason. By reciting her mantra of ‘strong and stable leadership’ every time she opens her mouth, Mrs May has not only devalued the currency of what probably seemed a decent soundbite on first utterance but has unleashed a backlash of irritation, derision and satirical commentary, which will not improve her chances of winning uncertain voters to her side.

Soundbites are meant to illuminate reasoned discourse, not substitute for it. When every question about policy is answered with the same soundbite, we suspect there is no substance behind it and no will to engage with the issues that legitimately concern the public – an impression that is reinforced by Mrs May’s refusal to engage in any live TV debates with the opposition.

There doesn’t seem much doubt at the moment that May is on course for a decisive victory on June 8. But when future commentators come to analyse her legacy, I imagine that ‘strong and stable leadership’ will feature as an embarrassing lapse of taste and judgement rather than a positive contribution to her image.

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