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19 February 2011

Some thoughts about leaders debates

With the third and final Irish election leaders debates coming up on Tuesday I thought I would summarise some of my thoughts about the debates. It is based on being applied to an election leaders debate but at the same time many of the concepts can be applied to any debating or interview format.

1. Body language is often cited as a key factor to watch for but it is often overstated as generally speakers will start off nervous and then relax into it. While they will find it hard to hide being tense and nervous they will be prepped well enough not to wipe their brow when asked a difficult question as Nixon did in the debate with Kennedy. If anything their fear of making an inadvertent gesture will make them appear more rigid and nervous at the beginning. As they settle into the debate and get more comfortable then an adequately prepared debater will become more natural in their body language. If they continue to appear rigid then they may have been over coached on avoiding a particular gesture that their support team may feel comes across badly to the audience. At the same time if there is a repeated gesture that comes across as unnatural (e.g. thumping the podium) then it may be that they have been asked to incorporate a new, alien, gesture into their body language which is never a good idea. Natural is almost always most convincing.

2. Watch for the same phrase over and over. Political debaters are sometimes briefed to use a party slogan as often as possible. The success of slogans like “Yes we can” means political handlers now think they need to have a similar catchy slogan to summarise the tone and content of their campaign. It rarely happens with the success of “Yes we can” but even Obama didn’t use “yes we can” in the debates. A poorly prepared political debater may think they should use the party slogan repeatedly (especially if they get a good reaction the first time) but they can easily use it to the point where it will become annoying and counterproductive. Slogans are best left to the posters and the party rallies.

3. Watch their eye contact but bear in mind that an issue here may be a fault of the candidate or the TV director. If the debate is happening in front of a live audience then the tendency will be to speak to the audience. However if the TV director may have set up his cameras at an angle to avoid blocking the view of the audience which in turn means the debater is on TV from the side and never makes eye contact with the TV audience (as I recall this happened to one of the candidates in the first UK general election debate). However, to the other extreme, an over coached debater may address the camera at all times and will appear to be staring out of the TV at the audience. The best approach will be a balance of addressing the camera, the audience, the moderator and the opponent depending on which approach is most natural at the time. Separate to that their support team should have worked with the TV director in advance to make sure there is a good camera angle for each of those options.

4. Watch out for the leader failing to answer the question asked. You might say it is easier to count the questions that are answered. This is because political debaters are often briefed to avoid difficult questions by going back to the party line. Most voters are aware of this tactic and hate it. Most interviewers or moderators will also pick up on it and may highlight it with a follow up question. The more questions the debater fails to address the more votes he/she is losing. It may be that the debater wants to address an issue that they didn’t get to mention before the last area of the debate was closed off. Then they should deal with it in 10 to 15 seconds and get immediately onto the current topic. However the overriding instinct should be to address the question asked.

5. Watch for a pause (or waffle) accompanied by a distant stare or squint as they try to recall a difficult fact that they clearly have been told but not understood. Here they are trying to remember one of the pages of facts and talking points they have been given by an assistant. They may well get it but this is a sign that it is not something they really understand. The best debaters will understand the issue first and then the facts to back it up will be much easier to recall. The best debaters will also recognise this in their opponent and may pursue the issue seeking to expose their rival’s lack of knowledge.

6. Watch out for them discussing issues at a high theoretical level. They should be aiming to engage with the individual average voter but too often they will address topics with a language and tone that is best suited to addressing a meeting of the economists and academics that have spent the last couple of weeks briefing them. Political parties often draft in leading figures in an area to prepare their debaters. However being an expert in an issue does not mean you are the best person to lead on that issue. Addressing topics with a theoretical or academic approach will not come across well to the voters who may not understand the nuanced detail of the issue but will understand how it impacts on them in day to day life. The person who wins the debate will be the person who persuades most of the floating average voters that they best understand their situation. That person may not be the one the highly educated academics and journalists declare to be the winner. I think the best way to sum this up is: Don’t tell them what is wrong and why it is wrong. Tell them what is wrong and how you are going to fix it.

7. Outgoing government party leaders are rarely popular in times of economic hardship. Everyone expects them to be torn apart on their performance in government. Therefore they will often resort to the philosophy that attack is the often the best form of defence. They will accuse the opposition of having poorly defined policies. They will accuse them of being ill informed or nor seeing the whole picture. They will accuse them of making populist promises which are not practical in reality. All of this is predictable. However instead of expecting this many opposition leaders seem shocked that they are the ones being attacked. They may have spent the past 4-5 years on the attack and defence does not come naturally to them. They find themselves on the back foot and become defensive both in outlook and body language (e.g. tightly clasped hands). The default position in their debate prep should be that they will be attacked. They should have a couple of brief defences prepared and then plan to go back on the attack just as hard.

8. Leading on from the previous point about being on the back foot, leaders shouldn’t worry about their mistakes in the debate. If they are looking back at what has already happened in the debate instead of forward to the current/next topic then they are more likely to run into further trouble. It is natural to be self critical but only they know exactly what they intended to say. If the message was delivered but not in the way they had designed they should not worry about it. If they have been absolutely destroyed on a topic (and that is rare) then they must put it behind them and focus on performing well on the remaining topics.

For more information on Election debating visig which is a website set up to give independent analysis of TV leaders debates.


  1. Anonymous9:06 pm

    Very good tips. I'll watch out for some of these in the republican party nomination debates later this year.

  2. I believe we will be covering the republican party debates when they happen. Is it 4 years already?

  3. Brilliantly observed and told!!!


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