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Always Take Care of the Little Things

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It must be very frustrating to spend months working on The Budget only to find that the whole thing is reduced to a few choice words: granny tax and pasty-gate.

All that work and it comes to nought. Or worse, it becomes a major source of embarrassment when the government is forced to explain, re-think or consult on changes that it had always intended to make in the first place (tax and charity giving).

It's not that those working on budgets are not clever. Far from it. Brains the size of major planets. Nor that they are lacking in nous or common sense. But they may have forgotten the first rule of perception management: people only ever remember the little things.

The budget, like many areas of public life, is very complex. We simply can't grasp it all. Even if we had the brain capacity, most of us simply don't have the time to plough through complex vocabulary, arcane terminology and endless footnotes.

We're forced, if we want to do anything in life, to rely upon the media (or other opinion-formers) who will helpfully summarise. Journalists provide the content, the context and the interesting stuff that helps us to reach a view.

Which is where the little things come in.

Feelings

It's not enough for the media to inform our view - journalists will often want to shape how we feel about something. The techniques they deploy are similar to those used by barristers in court - they focus our attention on little things that we can all grasp and ask us to be outraged about them.

Little things, from the point of view of stirring up high emotions, work wonderfully. We can remember them and we can talk about them to other people. They're pub-ready. We can rant about almost anything whilst knowing so little.

Not that this is news to politicians. Think back to the pasty-gate affair and you'll no doubt recall Mr Milliband and Mr Balls stopping off in Greggs for a light lunch. And lo - cameras happened to be there. Photo-opportunities are wonderful ways of bringing little things to our attention.

A momentary lapse of judgement

It's not just politicians who have to take care of the little things. In our own everyday life, we can find our reputation in tatters because we're forgotten this simple rule. Momentary lapses of judgement can undo years of positive reputation-building. Mistakes are made all too often by people rushing to action without thought: sexist remarks, racist jokes, inappropriate actions, faux pas.

If our colleagues are only going to remember one thing about us, we need to make sure it's something of which we could be proud. It's one of the reasons why Christmas parties are career-limiting; people tend to think that when the wine is flowing, the world is a happy and risk-free place. Rarely so.

In life, as in political life, we do not weigh up the full range of someone's career and contribution when reaching a view. People are not prone to objectivity and balance, mostly. It's not just that we rush to judgement - we go there on the first available jet.

In these times of employment insecurity, little things can be used against people. Turning up late for work can be seen as a lack of commitment to your employer. Not wearing a tie could imply that you disrespect your customers. Not smiling could mean that you hate being at work (rather than momentarily reflecting on last night's TV - it probably was that bad).

These may be the woes of mere mortals but politicians must be so much more careful. Any apparent misjudgement will be focused on and broadcast far and wide. For Mr. MiIliband, it means being always on trial. Journalists will look for little signs that he is not comfortable in the Leader's shoes. So in every speech he must be confident, relaxed, smiling and engaging. The devil may care is in the detail.

Mr. Cameron must beware of being presented as distant, superior, privileged and wealthy (think back to the fiasco over the coffee tip in Tuscany). In austere times, all in public office must don hair shirts.

But for all of us there are upsides to this shallow thinking. Spend time ensuring that you are well-read, that you have a rich vocabulary, that you are gracious and courteous to all you meet, that you are appropriately diffident and self-deprecating and that you always find ways to say and do the right things, and you will go far. Some schools do this very well.

Take care of these little things, and the rest will take care of itself.