Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 08/86 - scanned

GIVEN A MAGNETIC PERSONALITY (column)

Politics must be one of the worst 'professions' to land up in.

I wonder what it's like never having enough hours in the day to ever get to grips with the wide range of topics with which you're supposed to deal. One minute you're discussing terrorism, then European farmers' quotas, then South Africa. Then it's off to some function or other where you're expected to wax eloquent on whatever subject happens to be nearest to your host's heart.

Trips to Silicon Glen are expected to produce insightful comment, as are the side trips to the unemployment black spots as you wend your way back to the relative safety of Westminster.

Imagine having to spout authoritatively about any subject under the sun, often at no notice. It must take a special brand of confidence (arrogance?) to be able to do this, day in, day out, and retain credibility. And, after all, credibility is the name of the game. Just ask Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan.

These two worthies came to power not only when the opposition parties were weak and discredited, but also when real computing power was readily available as a political tool.

Market research results were exhaustively analysed to find messages and presentation styles acceptable to the bulk of the electorate.

Things which were once decided as a result of direct contact, coupled with 'seat of the pants' political instinct, were beginning to be decided through scientific analysis with the help of computers.

I know a chap in the US who ran for office in a county election. He found out that many public records were available on magnetic tape so, for the cost of a few reels, he obtained the electoral register and voting records of the country.

Using his own computer, he made several sweeps through the data. First he culled all those who hadn't voted in the last two elections. He then stripped out all bar one of those with the same surname at the same address. He then split the files according to whether the voters owned or rented their homes. The resulting files were split according to whether people lived in the towns or the countryside. He split them again into blue-collar and white-collar workers.

He then wrote different election addresses according to the type of recipient. By taking this approach he not only targeted his audience very precisely, but he also spent less than a quarter of what a conventional campaign would have cost him.

I don't know yet whether he won the election. What I do know is that he used his intelligence, his computer and the public records to the full. No doubt his detractors will cry 'foul', but surely they would have done exactly the same thing, had they thought of it.

Anyway, I digress. Back to credibility. It's not just politicians who need it, we all do. We have to make sense to most of the people most of the time. One method is to talk in a tone of voice that sounds convincing even when we're not making a lot of sense. A deliberate, ponderous delivery in the correct accent carries a ludicrous amount of weight in our small island.

Over in the US, it may be more important to be able to act a part, even when your heart's not in it. Genuine credibility, though, comes from a proper understanding of the various issues and of what is going on around you. Unfortunately, this option is becoming impractical in our increasingly complex world. We are all having to focus on ever narrower domains of specialisation.

But, with the help of computers we can still maintain the illusion of being deeply in touch with everything and, given the proper delivery, can persuade most people that this is indeed the case. The trick is to find out the interests of your target audience, convert these into keywords and use them to search the appropriate databases.

Once you've got a couple of thousand words on a subject, you've probably got enough to pretend you're still in touch. This method works for the flying visit, the television appearance, after-dinner speaking, anything, in fact, apart from proper debate. (And I don't count what happens in the House of Commons as proper debate.)

Perhaps we should all take courses in psychology before it's too late. At least then we'll stand a chance of seeing through the computer-generated illusions and learn how to judge people for what they really are.