A week ago we idly wondered if the televised leadership debates could make much difference to public opinion. Now we know they can.
The polls have the Liberals and Conservatives vying for first place, with Labour flailing in third place and without a clear strategy to pull back. It might be difficult for Brown to agree with and attack Clegg at the same time, but no doubt he’ll find a way. With two debates to go, there’s still everything to play for. Remember how Susan Boyle took the world by storm via YouTube? And then she lost.
Brown has been bitten by his own sound-bite – “I agree with Nick.” Ladbrokes are offering 2-1 for either Cameron or Brown to use the phrase “I agree with Nick” in this week’s debate. Gordon Brown has proved he’s not Derren Brown. His hypnotic embedded command (an NLP technique) “Nick supports me,” failed to put Clegg in a trance or the mood for romance. Instead, he pulled an “ew…” face and has since called Brown “desperate.” Ouch.
Perhaps the most impressive thing the debate (and Facebook) has done is to get more young people aged 18-24 interested in voting. Not as easy as the phone voting they’ve been trained in, but 120,000 registration forms were downloaded in the four days after the debate – half as many as in the entire preceding month. If that translates into people in polling stations, it would say quite something about the power of the debates.
So how did this happen? Was it all down to style, with substance being disregarded?
We Quietroomers spend our days analysing people’s language and style. What are some of the techniques we spotted? And what do we think could push up the scores on the doors?
Clegg immediately used language to create distance between him, Brown and Cameron. In his opening speech he said, “These two…” which created distance and showed dislike. Clegg continued using this linguistic tactic by repeatedly using their full names: “I don’t know whether Gordon Brown and David Cameron will take up this invitation,” and often speaking about them, not to them.
Gordon noticeably used both men’s first names throughout the debate. He did it to diminish Cameron: “I don’t think David will support us on that.” But in Clegg’s case, it was always to create the impression of closeness: “I agree with Nick.” This backfired, which shows that when a technique isn’t used authentically, no-one believes it.
The name calling didn’t stop there. Each of the leaders used the first names of audience members asking questions. Cameron started it, signalling that he was being personal. Clegg went one better. He used the person’s name, played back to them what they’d said, and then agreed with them: “Gerard, you talked about a fair, workable immigration system. That’s exactly what I want.” He was signalling ‘I’m on your side.’
Clegg used this technique often, though not always accurately: “Jacqueline, you asked what can be done to stop burglary happening over and over and over and over again.” No she didn’t. Jacqueline’s question was about making the UK a safer place to live and work. But Clegg reframed what she said so that he could make a different point.
Cameron was the first to use storytelling: “I was in Plymouth recently, and a 40-year-old black man made the point to me…” Perhaps this literally was storytelling; Cameron said the man had been in the Royal Navy for 30 years, which made him ten when he joined… After that, the stories came thick and fast. One of Clegg’s felt overegged with technique: “I met a young man…. His flat had been burgled five times, and one of them, would you believe it, Jacqueline, was when he was away at his father’s funeral.”
Brown opened the door to self disclosure: “When I was young my father ran a youth club with my brother…”. Cameron wasn’t to be outdone: “My mother was a magistrate.” Brown came back: “I’d been brought up to believe by my parents…”
A few word-counts. The most popular verb of the debate was “think,” used 134 times, with “know” only used 34 times. Wouldn’t we prefer our leaders to know more? The more positive “can” (thank you, Obama) was used 116 times, with the negative “can’t” only uttered 20 times.
The scores for the most-used nouns show what politicians think our priorities might be: people (107) country (62) money (56) economy (36). “Sorry,” something we might want to hear from our leaders, was said six times, but three times it was because Cameron and Clegg couldn’t see the audience member they were speaking to.
Ding ding. Round two. What techniques will change in the second debate?
Clegg looked down the camera to speak to the audience at home. Will the others now copy this style? And will Clegg master finishing a sentence to camera without weakening his message by looking down on his final words?
Cameron avoided eye contact with Brown when Brown was addressing him directly. He’d be stronger if he looked and listened.
Brown’s attacking, interrupting style might disappear, if he can control himself. And after his fluffed attempt at wit – thanking Cameron for funding his smiling face on posters – maybe he’ll follow his own advice and go for substance.
Our favourite moment last time was the very end, after the handshakes. Brown jumped off the stage and heartily pumped the hands of every audience member in the front row. Cameron held Clegg back on stage for a moment, before they both reconsidered and dived into the audience.
Illuminating moments. Let’s see what they come up with tonight.