Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures

School of Media and Communication

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Matthew Lovatt

PhD Student

Clothworkers' Building North, Room 1.07

Matt is a PhD student at the School of Media and Communication, University of Leeds, and is supported by a full WRoCAH AHRC studentship. His research looks at political storytelling, with a particular focus on the increasing use of anecdotes by British political leaders. His work is supervised across two schools, by Professor Stephen Coleman from the School of Media and Communication, and Dr Fiona Douglas from the School of English. He holds an MA in Political Communication (2017) and a BA in English Language (2014), both obtained from the University of Leeds. He is currently an Educational Outreach Fellow, and a member of the school’s political performance group. Outside his academic studies, Matt previously worked as an EFL teacher in Barcelona.

Research Interests

  • Political storytelling
  • Political rhetoric
  • Performance and politics
  • Corpus linguistics
  • Media framing

Research Centres & Groups

Political Performance Reading Group

PhD Thesis

Political Storytelling: Anecdotes and Personal Stories in British Politics

Whether it is parliamentarians telling heartbreaking tales of personal trauma, or party leaders detailing their encounters with citizens, stories and anecdotes have become an increasing feature of political speech since the 1990s. It is not uncommon to hear MPs ‘opening up’ about their deeply personal struggles with baby loss and depression, or relaying moving accounts of their constituents’ suffering. Nor is it uncommon to hear political leaders call upon anecdotal experience to sell themselves, buttress their arguments, and defend government records. These stories are just one indicator of a wider turn to more personalised modes of leader-citizen communication, but the media is paying increasing attention to them. We see regular reports of emotionally charged moments, where MPs have moved their fellow politicians to tears with moving stories. But equally, we see reports of spurious and inauthentic storytelling, like when David Cameron confused the details about a “40-year-old black man from Plymouth”. My project investigates this increasing use of these anecdotes and personal stories in British political speech and debate, asking how we should perceive this relatively recent trend. What stories do politicians tell? Why do they tell them? What are the consequences for political debate and speech if storytelling is becoming more frequent?

Traditional responses to these questions have been critical. Stories should be treated with suspicion, it is argued, because they ‘stir the passions’ or represent ‘merely anecdotal’ accounts of political experience. They are effective at relaying ‘hegemonic discourses’ or they signify a turn to a more personalised mode of political interaction lacking in substance. At the heart of my thesis is the belief that such an approach is unduly negative about the role stories and anecdotes play in political communication. Particularly, I argue that these criticisms of political storytelling are in conflict with the contemporary nature of political culture, where personalised and emotive styles of discourse, rhetoric, and performance can be central to democratic processes of debate, argument, and representation.

In my thesis, I aim to move beyond traditional approaches to political storytelling in two distinctive ways. First, I will provide new empirical insights. Where most literature has tended to ignore contextual differences underlying political storytelling, I compare storytelling as it takes place across two different political contexts: leaders’ speeches and parliamentary debates. By drawing on tenets of discourse and rhetorical analysis, I aim to identify the different kinds of stories politicians tell across these contexts, the different themes they draw on, and their discursive, rhetorical, and performative content.

Second, I will contextualise my empirical findings by grounding them in more normative and theoretical questions about political storytelling. Where traditional approaches tend to see stories and anecdotes as something that impoverishes democratic communication, I will ask how a different approach – one more sensitive to the emotional, cultural, and stylistic dimensions of political storytelling – might conceive of a more balanced role for politicians’ stories and anecdotes in political discourse. With this in mind, I hope to identify important ways in which political storytelling might have both positive and negative consequences for democratic communication. In what seems to be a crisis of representation, where citizens feel like politicians increasingly live in a different world to them, might moments of emotionally charged storytelling offer unique opportunities for identification between representatives and those that they represent?

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