The Great Debate

Jane 2:46 pm, Apr 15th 2010

“Britain’s Got Talent”

Finally it’s here.  After 50 years, the live televised debate has rippled to us from across the pond.  We might still be waiting, had it not been for such narrow margins between Labour and the Conservatives.  Can debates influence our votes?  In Australia, they reckon debates are responsible for a 1-2% swing.  But they have compulsory voting, so our British swingometer might look quite different.

Tonight, Brown, Cameron and Clegg will take to the stage to sing for their political supper.  There’s everything to play for.  The audience – and estimates say there will be 12 million of us – finally get to use all the pointers we’ve picked up from countless reality and talent shows, and apply them to the potential boss of Britain.

It might be difficult for the boys to truly strut their stuff.  There are 76 rules controlling the show.

The audience will be allowed to clap at the beginning and the end, but otherwise silence will rule.  Strictly no heckling.  Shots showing audience reactions will be limited.  Laughter might be harder to stifle – and there will no doubt be some rehearsed wit from our leaders.  It worked for Reagan.  We’ll see what our guys come up with.  At the start, the leaders get to make a one-minute statement.  Questions, which the leaders won’t have seen, must be relevant to all three parties, so we can’t expect anything dirt-diggingly personal.  At the end, they get to make a closing statement.  And then they’ll shake hands.  It’s in the rules.

Our leaders have been asked how they are feeling about their “auditions”.  Perhaps disappointingly, unlike most talent shows, not one of them have said, “I know I’ve got the X factor.  I’ll give 110% if the viewers vote for me.”  But they’ve all said they’re looking forward to the debates. Hmm… Really?

If we do tune in, what do we think we’ll be watching out for to help us make our voting decision, or to confirm what we’ve already decided?  Policy or personality?  Psychology suggests that we think we make decisions rationally, but actually we make them emotionally.  From our gut animal instincts.  Many think that politics is won on personality.  Perhaps that explains why, when so much of what we see tonight will be rehearsed, we’ll be watching intently for any glimpse of spontaneity where authentic personality can actually come through.

We’ll look out for the rehearsed body language.  Cameron has enrolled Obama’s body language advisor, Anita Dunn, to help him. To ‘project stability’ Dunn has told Cameron to stand centre-on to his podium, and hold both sides of it when he makes a point.  To make him seem calm and centred, the advice is to have a ‘forward-looking gaze’ and not let his eyes dart around in a ‘shifty’ way.  Dunn got Obama to concentrate intently and furrow his brow when a question was being asked, and then relax into a smile as he answered.  We’ll see if Cameron or any of the others adopt a similar technique.  But the advisors don’t always get it right. McCain was told not to give Obama eye contact in case he gave away his total disdain for him.  Instead he just came across as odd.  We’ll watch out for how the leaders physically react to each other, all in a bid to gain the highest status in our eyes.

We’ll look out for our leaders’ tells, the things that would give them away in a game of poker.  According to Dr Collett, who you may have seen on Big Brother, they all do different things when put under pressure.  Cameron licks his lips, Clegg pulls up his upper lip, making a U-shape with his mouth, and Brown’s inhalation through his mouth and jaw drop get more pronounced.  Given that they know these are their tells, they might try to control them.  Other tells are harder to control:  the dry mouth, red patches on the neck and face, sweat.  Apparently bets are being placed on who will be the first to break into a sweat.

And we’ll listen out for what they say.  They’ll no doubt try to stay on message, and say it and say it again.  We also expect a fair amount of attacking and the newly fashionable agreeing.  It will be interesting to hear how much of what they say is designed to appeal to our rational side as opposed to our emotional side.  Frank Luntz, American word doctor, reckons 80% of our reactions are emotional versus 20% rational.  He looks for words that can trigger emotions, the implication being that those words can change minds.

And what will we remember afterwards?  What will the nation be talking about in the morning?  The wise words we heard or the gaffes made?  Our money’s on the latter.  The wheels on the spinning machines will start turning during the show – get ready for Twitter – and will keep going in the aftermath of the debate.  Depending on how it goes, one or more of our potential bosses of Britain might be having yet another makeover before “Debate, the Sequel.”

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