Oratorical skills proxy for leadership skills in debates

April 30, 2010

Timothy Clark and David Greatbatch are professors at Durham Business School. The opinions expressed are their own.-

The three televised party leader debates in the UK show that live oratory is still a powerful tool and remains an important source of the public’s perception of a politician’s image and abilities.

They have perhaps raised awareness of the importance of effective political oratory as the party leaders and their messages are exposed to an audience of millions rather than thousands and the instant critical scrutiny of bloggers, commentators and the “worm”.

Apart from their novelty a key reason for the importance of these debates is that they provide audience members with an opportunity to use the verbal and non-verbal cues of each party leader to ascertain their leadership ability.  Therefore each party leader’s oratorical skills become a proxy for their leadership skills.

The polls after the first debate showed Clegg the clear winner.  Up until that event he had not been treated as an equal in parliamentary exchanges between party leaders, such as Prime Minister’s Questions.

These were conveyed generally as exchanges between Labour and Conservative party leaders with the Liberal Democrat leader marginalized.  Brown and Cameron’s experience was therefore largely of one another.

Suddenly, they were required to deal with him on an equal footing.  The fact that Clegg’s performance after the first debate was deemed so much better than that of Brown and Cameron must have come as a huge surprise.

He built a strong rapport with the audience by referring to each questioner by name, by looking into the camera and by displaying a relaxed and confident demeanor.  At the same time his place on the podium, to the left, and answers to questions enabled him to position himself as separate from the other parties.

It was Clegg who successfully used the fact that the party leaders’ interactions and rapport with the audience members in the auditorium would be used as a proxy for the audience as a whole (i.e., those watching on TV).

The broad reaction to his performance had a very positive impact in the polls of voting intentions and the media more generally.  He became treated more on an equal footing to the other party leaders and could no longer be marginalized or ignored.  Indeed, his performance in the first leader debate was deemed a “gamechanger”.

By the time of the second debate Brown and Cameron had started to learn and deploy successfully the practices that Clegg had used so successfully.  They dropped the use of anecdotes and familiarity with one another and sought to actively engage the audience, look directly into the camera and focus more on policy differences than similarities.

The changes were reflected in the polls for the second debate which showed that although Cameron and Clegg vied for first position the three leaders performances were not rated too far apart.  In the final debate Cameron and to a lesser extent Brown further amended the way they presented so that the differences with Clegg were lessened.

Once again the polls suggest that either Cameron or Clegg won with Brown coming third.  Thus, the conventions that Clegg used so successfully in the first debate have gradually been adopted by the other part leaders reducing their stylistic differences.  As this has happened the pendulum has perhaps swung away from a focus on performance to policy.

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