The TV election debate – what it says about communication

In launching Speakeasy in Radcliffe on Thursday, I missed the first televised UK election debate in history. We had a fantastic night as always, but I’ve since viewed the TV coverage of the three party leaders and from a performance point of view I found it fascinating.

Your ability to communicate your message and connect with your audience is a crucial skill for leaders – indeed for anyone looking to influence the behaviour of others. So let me share some of my thoughts on how Brown, Cameron and Clegg performed that night in Manchester (NB: I make no judgments here on who should win the election, just on the effectiveness of their communication style!).

Most people seem to think Clegg came across the best. The three leaders’ body language spoke volumes I thought. The Lib-Dem man looked more relaxed (despite admitting to being terrified before the start!) and the hand-in-pocket look made him come across as confident and self-assured. This came up in Speakeasy (Radcliffe) too – the hand in pocket can indeed be a positive thing, as long as it’s not overdone (too casual, low energy) but imagine what having them in both pockets would convey (disrespectful and the practical issue of not using your hands to communicate passion).

Clegg also looked directly into the camera, like he was personally addressing the millions watching at home. Perhaps this made him come across as more prime ministerial?

Brown tends to use chopping actions with his hands, enforcing his rather cold, domineering persona. Cameron looked tense, often pursing his lips and clenching his fists (frustration, something to hide?). I found Clegg’s hand movements and body language more natural, which encourages the audience to trust him more and become more receptive to his message. Awkward body language is very distracting for the audience – they’re looking at it instead of taking in the message.

As is common with such debates, there were strict rules laid down and the fact that the audience couldn’t react with applause, laughter, etc creates difficulties for a speaker. For a start, when you employ humour you use the response of the audience as a barometer of your performance. If they laugh, do some more. If they’re flat, try something else. But with a mute audience you’re operating in a vacuum. You’ve not got the feedback to guide you on how you’re doing or what the mood of the audience is like. Brown tried to get in first on the humour front with his airbrushing/Lord Ashcroft dig at Cameron. But of course with no feedback it appeared to fall flat. I don’t think Brown does humour well anyway, so perhaps he’d have been better off being more himself.

I don’t know about you but Brown always gives me the impression that he’s irritated that people don’t appreciate how good he is and that all this media stuff just distracts him from getting on with the important things. As Caitlan Moran said in The Times (16th April 2010), Brown, “Looked like someone who’d spent all day doing maths and was going straight back to it, the minute all this nonsense was over.”

By most accounts, Cameron’s performance was the weakest of the three. He did look rather tense and nervous and was perhaps disadvantaged by being in the middle (opponents on both sides, not a situation that we’d see in the two-party American system).  Of course he rather struggles with this posh, old-Etonian tag. “What family hasn’t had to cut back and make hard decisions?” he asked. Well yours actually, thought thousands across the nation!

But in fairness, he is a strong communicator and, like the other two, used the Rule of 3 to good effect. “We need to join together, come together and recognise that we’re all in this together.” His story about the woman in Crosby whose house was burgled and set on fire (killing her son) was powerful and produces a strong, emotional reaction. If you can use stories about real people (especially stories you have a personal relationship with) and link it to a relevant point, you’ll really connect with and move your audience.

Strangely enough, I thought the best performer on the night was the host Alistair Stewart – great mixture of authority (barking out orders to the 3 party leaders) and enthusiasm (fantastic use of the voice, pacing, passionate, articulate).

Perhaps the reason Clegg came across so well is his ability to connect with the audience and gain their trust. As John Curtis, Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde put it (The Independent, Sat 17th April 2010), the Lib-Dem leader showed, “Apparent competence laced with a degree of empathy – perhaps it reminded some of Tony Blair?” He remembered the names of several audience members, addressed them personally when answering questions and returned to them at subsequent stages.

I think Brown and Cameron looked more rehearsed, with prepared one-liners which were not delivered as well as they might.

But does it actually matter how well they come across in this format? Commentators often point to the famous debate between Nixon and JFK in the USA in 1960. It was carried on both the TV and radio but because Nixon looked positively ill and sweated profusely, JFK won over the televised audience, but not the radio listeners.

Whatever your views on the relative merits of the 3 party leaders, I hope you’ll agree on the need to develop strong communication skills when addressing an audience. You may point to the danger of ‘style-over-substance’, but in this multi-media world style matters.

I’m looking forward to the next 2 debates and of course we’ll see if it really makes a difference on May 6th!

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