Last night was the first ever publicly televised General Election Debate. The pre-debate excitement was almost unbearable, as the Nation waited with baited breath to listen to what the three main parties had to say and, most importantly, to see who would triumph as Victor of Round One.
Public speaking matters. It should reach beyond spin and PR and show the orator’s true convictions, beliefs and aspirations. How often nowadays do we hear politicians speak on such a stage: in the House of Commons exchanges are often no more than spats between quarrelling children, and soundbites are absorbed by text, email, newspapers and video broadcasts. Last night was different, we were given a chance to listen to the three men who are asking us to allow them to govern our country – for better or for worse.
Communication is a powerful tool of etiquette and is perhaps increasingly so nowadays when so much is media-driven. Pitch of voice, tone, body language and expression form an impression, together with grooming and presentation which far exceeds the importance of content. As the Americans say, the winner is the one who can ‘walk the talk’.
Michael Foot and Margaret Thatcher, William Hague and Winston Churchill – all are memorable for their speech content and delivery in individual ways. Nowadays so much is about the way we look and sound – and it is easy to forget that what matters is what people say and the way in which they say it.
First impressions count. Last night each were immaculately turned out at first glance. Gordon’s collar was too tight, but the silk ties were well knotted, and appropriately coloured. Always use blocks of colour and avoid vivid patterns when appearing in front of the camera. Their hair was well tamed and cut and each looked suave – though David Cameron by far the most poised and sophisticated of the three.
David stood at the podium as a headmaster might at a public school; authoritative, wise, and approachable, though slightly nervous at the start. Nick slightly more relaxed in stature, still smart and correct, but giving an aura of chattiness – this was the one who would appear to be our pal, moderating the other two not just in stance but by appearing to stand up for the ordinary man. Trouble is, the Lib-Dems are always well meaning, and have some idealistic and admirable policies, but they are usually rather ‘pie in the sky’ and the costs are not easy to add up to ensure they can deliver…..
Gordon looked, as usual, entirely ill at ease as Alistair Stewart began, but relaxed visibly after the start gun sounded and the first heated exchange came to the fore! How this proves the value of tutoring and media coaching in an attempt to improve image. If only it wasn’t for that false smile that he remembers to flash like a lightbulb (at least it is better than ‘Teflon Tony’s’ wide eyed grin), we would almost believe him, though after 13 years of trying to get it right and failing dismally, the pretence is wearing rather thin. We are politically biased, but there is no disguising the fact that Gordon trotted out the same old lines, trying to convince us that he knows how to run the family budget. However, his rhetoric was well articulated and it was persuasive – he appears to have a genuine conviction that he is right and he made it sound as though by trusting him to spend more he will get us out of this black hole – how many though are happy to have that wool pulled over their eyes?
An important tool in communication is appearing to be pleased to be there. Our three looked sincerely happy to be on parade although, as mentioned earlier, Gordon took a little longer to warm to the theme. It was pleasing to see that each demonstrated the basic good manners of courtesy towards their opponent – which reinforces that first impression and continues to set the tone of debate.
Nick’s delivery was ‘chatty’ all the way through. His voice is pleasant, middle England, and easy to listen to. He uses body language and gestures well to get his point across that he is there for us and believes in a fairer system for all.
Much will be made of David Cameron’s public school background by those who care to forget that many socialist politicians send their children to private schools to secure a better education for them. What private school does give though is supreme confidence. You show me a room full of people and the ones who are the most at ease with small talk and networking will be those who have attended one of our private institutions. Pitch, tone, the ability to seek out conversational topics which appeal to those of us who are less forthcoming – that is the mark of a public school child, and David Cameron has that in spades. His body language is good and he uses hand gestures sparingly. Eye contact is exceptionally important and he has a confidence when looking directly at the camera. In short, Cameron looks polished and he sounds polished. Thankfully, he has the policies now to back that up.
It was disappointing that not one member of the audience invited to ask a question had the courtesy to stand up when they spoke. Perhaps that is indicative of the low regard in which our politicians are held, and it is very worrying if that is the case. Only one called the three ‘Gentlemen’ and he was the only interrogator who thanked them too. I wonder how many viewing noticed that? Good manners begin with please, thank you and treating others as you would wish to be treated. Let us hope next week’s audience remember that the impression they each create will be formed for the nation too!
An important final note. Alistair Stewart, that veteran broadcaster, looked immaculate and chaired the debate in a firm and forthright fashion throughout. There were moments when he interrupted perhaps a little too readily, but clearly things could have got out of hand if he had not been ready to intervene sooner rather than later, and all in all, he did a very good job. Chairing a meeting or debate requires authority and the ability to listen and disseminate information rapidly. Well done Alistair.
Our politician’s must reach out to every voter and ‘connect’ if they are to hope to command a majority in the forthcoming polls. They must appear sincere as well as polished, and the gloss will soon wear thin if the content is not there. Who appeared most genuine last night?
The audience at home and in the studio will have returned to their homes and perhaps analysed a little more closely what was actually said. At that point, the content of course matters, but the memory of delivery will prevail. That all important ‘first’ impression.
Conclusion: Round One to Nick Clegg for overall ease of delivery and the impression that he wants to be our friend, but David Cameron wins for content – and who will you trust to have the overall ability to form the next Government? My money is firmly on Cameron – he looks as though he will stand up to the naughty children, and the warring parents any day.
In a nutshell: old fashioned oratory demonstrates good manners if the delivery is right. Communication etiquette matters.
The English Manner offers training in communication etiquette, with the option of voice and media training. To find out more, please contact us.
Founder, The English Manner