Comment: In the Trust Election, actions speak louder than words

The Question Time debate saw leaders reveal their communication strengths - and weaknesses
The Question Time debate saw leaders reveal their communication strengths - and weaknesses

By Richard Newman

With less than a week to the election, people around the UK have repeatedly said that they want to vote for a leader they can trust, who gives clear answers on their policies and who can explain how they are different from everyone else.

On a special edition of Question Time last night, a lively and passionate audience grilled the three political leaders on these points.

At a time when there is little faith in politicians we are looking at their actions, instead of relying on their words, to decide who we can believe in. There were three distinct styles for us to choose from at this debate, much like a political version of Goldilocks.


Too hot?

The evening began with an energised and fast-talking Cameron. He walked swiftly up the stairs into the hall and leapt forwards to answer the first question.  This was a stark contrast to the style he displayed at the leadership debate just a couple of weeks ago, where he lacked energy, his voice trailed off at the end of sentences and he appeared lacklustre.  This time there seemed to be fire in his belly, although he may have gone too far.

He spoke much more quickly than usual as he responded to questions. He leaned forwards and jabbed the air with a clenched fist.  His heels even lifted up as he leant towards the audience in an aim to reach and convince them.  This style, known as the 'bluff' position, can diminish the status of the speaker if we feel they have lost command under pressure.

As Cameron got into his stride his pace slowed down, he gave firm palms-down gestures to make definitive points and gave focussed eye contact as he aimed to convince each person who asked a question.  This created an impression of conviction and control.

Overall, the passion was a welcome change to the previous debate, but his speed and gestures may have appeared too heated.

Overcooked?

Miliband was next up, with a clear change of approach in his style.

He walked slowly to the stage, spoke mostly with one hand in his pocket, at a controlled pace and stood closer to the audience.  If we were taking a snapshot of his style he would have seemed more at ease than Cameron.

However, the longer he spoke the more predictable things became. The lack of variety in his style meant that he overcooked his few favourite techniques. It appeared he had been coached to keep that left hand in his pocket and use his right hand repeatedly with his common 'thumb-and-two-fingers-squeezed-together' gesture. While he avoided the insincere looks down the camera that he had made previously, he did not stay connected with the person who asked each question. Instead he began by speaking to them and then moved away to talk to the whole crowd, leaving us wondering if the questioner really felt convinced.

In this situation if we see a leader convince one sceptic and gain a nodding head from them we feel more reassured and convinced that they have answered the question well and won people around. They do not need to persuade everyone at once, just one person at a time.

Miliband was stronger when he spoke about the question around a coalition with the SNP. He gave very firm gestures, coupled with a strong voice, giving a clear picture of commitment to avoiding Scottish independence.

He even did well with some humour, by mentioning Cameron and Clegg in a 'darkened room' together, gaining laughter from the crowd.

While we may forgive the way he clumsily fell off of the stage as he finished, it is harder to look past the narrow range of over-used techniques in his style.

When we are searching for someone we can trust, who is distinct from everyone else, it is essential to have a full range of communication skills to influence and inspire us, in order to avoid appearing bland or false, as Miliband often does.

Just right?

Nick Clegg sparked off something the papers called Cleggmania in 2010.  His communication style has the magic combination of warmth, command and flow, all of which feels more genuine and convincing to the voting public.

This would certainly have had an influence on him becoming deputy prime minister, which had never happened previously in this country to the leader of the smaller party in a coalition government.

The first question he received was about trust over the broken promise on university fees.  He remained composed and even gained warm laughter from the audience as he joked by saying, "a nice easy question to start with".

His voice was calmer and his gestures were looser than the other leaders, creating a more natural appearance.

He dealt with the harshest question of the night, where a man asked what job Clegg would do when he was "unemployed in a week's time", by remaining jovial and therefore swiftly moved on unscathed.

He gained further laughter, referring back to the darkened room of coalition agreements. Both Cameron and Miliband had mentioned this analogy, but Clegg finished it off by saying that the other leaders should probably lie down in a dark room if they think there won't be a coalition, adding to the sense that he was being clearer and more honest than the others.

His style displayed empathy and his answers were far clearer than those given by the others, reflecting his statement that the Lib Dems would bring 'a heart to a Conservative government and a brain to a Labour one'.

The challenge that Clegg has of course is that in 2010 the voters who were drawn in by his warm style felt let down by his later decisions.

In the remaining days before the votes are cast people will be weighing up the actions of each leader, because the trust and clarity that we are seeking from them will always be judged more by what they do than what they say.

Richard Newman is the director of UK Body Talk, specialists in communication skills for leaders

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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