#RealityCheck - The non-verbal cues of the first Leaders' Debate

Presenter mentor Rowan Manahan on the body language cues from tonight's debate

“Deputy Adams! Stop waving your finger at me and trying to intimidate me.” (Joan Burton) 

See, here’s the thing. There isn’t a whole lot of body language to observe in a political debate. Four people standing behind lecterns that are covered in notes. A little bit of gesticulation, a little bit of vocal inflection, a little bit of looking down the lens for the opening remarks. Is there much more to it?

Well, yes and no.

The usual things we look out for in when observing a fellow member of our species – the facial tics, surreptitious gestures, changes in pitch or pace in the voice. These things give us a (mostly unconscious) insight into the character and nature of the person who is speaking. Here’s the problem: professional politicians have consciously ironed the majority of those ‘tells’ out of their delivery.

Three more fingers pointing back at you

Bill Clinton was famous for wrapping his index finger over the tip of his thumb and waving that about. He still does it today. That was drilled into him to stop him from pointing his finger for emphasis in a way that most people – again unconsciously – take as being at least rude and at worst, threatening. All four of the leaders tonight echoed that move. They were all taught that it’s rude to point and their handlers have hammered that home to them in their speech and debate prep sessions.

Gerry’s lickle fisties

Gerry was the first one to slip from that very controlled mode of gesticulation. He has an interesting little-boy-banging-a-drum gesture that he uses quite a bit – Emph. A. Sizing. Every. Word.  Gerry did it constantly in the early part of the debate, presumably to convey passion. His vocal pattern (which is also, counter-intuitively, a non-verbal cue) was interesting too. He spoke the shortest, clearest sentences of all of the candidates. He used only a handful of polysyllabic words and I’ll be interested to examine the transcript closely for the shape of his sentences, because I’d be willing to bet he used more one and two syllable words than all the others. As a result his soundbites ‘landed.’ The other leaders? Not so much.

Enda’s first impression

Enda does not like debating in front of a large audience. He was very tight at the outset, and had to drop his eyes to his notes for his opening remark, something none of the other leaders did. He settled in after about 20 seconds, but he failed to ‘connect’ down the lens in those all important first few seconds. We make up our minds on people in a ridiculously short length of time – two to four seconds – and in those few seconds Enda needed to project confidence, openness, intelligence and the all-important likability. Did he do that for you?

Joan’s micro-rictus

Joan seems to have come off worst in the assessment of the debate on social media and, as smart and capable as she obviously is, her style does not suit this kind of shouty debate. (Does anyone’s? See below) It was she who demanded that “Deputy Adams” stop trying to “intimidate” her with his sharp and pointy hand gestures; but she was just as guilty, in the last 20 minutes of making cutting gestures with her hands to emphasise her points. When she is nervous, she also displays a fleeting half-smile that she shuts off too quickly. It’s not a comfortable gesture and it doesn’t make the observer comfortable when she does it a few times in a row.

Micheal’s moment of relief

The two things I noticed about Micheal Martin were his rapid pace of speech – he is one of those rare people who can be effective when he speaks very rapidly – and his relieved mini-grin when Joan and Enda were having a go at Gerry Adams. I saw Gerry flash the same “see how you like it” grin at one point, when the coalition partners pounced on Michael. For both men, it’s a completely unconscious and almost impossible to stop expression. The relief at having survived a barrage directed at you is augmented by the relief at seeing someone else being barraged… and we grin. These were probably one of the few truly authentic moments of the night.

Verbal non-verbal?

We have a fundamental problem with political debates in the modern world. Either you get the canned excerpts from the stump speech of the American and British political systems, or you have the uniquely Irish approach of “shout random numbers and refutations at the other fella” that we seem to be stuck with here. It’s a contradiction in terms – the most common non-verbal cue of Irish political debating is to talk, just not in a way that anyone can hear. The only time you heard total silence from the other three leaders tonight, was when each of them was being asked their thoughts on the Eighth Amendment. Other than that all too brief interlude, the norm was for at least two, and often three, voices to be heard all the way through the debate.

I don’t know about you, but when Pat announced that all four mics would be open for the entire debate, I groaned. And neither of the moderators seemed capable of reining in the worst excesses of the “shouting random refutation” approach. The format obfuscates, which is presumably why the politicians are happy to keep doing it.

Winner? Not the audience

If Twitter is anything to go by, no one had a eureka moment watching this debate. Did you? Think about that. Forget what they said for a moment – if you can even remember anything they said anyway. Think about the credibility, or lack of credibility, they displayed with their presence. Make no mistake, this stuff matters to us, way down in our monkey brains. That’s why we keep appointing big tall strong men to be CEOs of major corporations.

But who left the impression of courageous, trustworthy, capable LEADER in your mind tonight? Who looked statesmanlike? (statespersonlike?) Who sounded statesmanlike? Did you find yourself warming to any of them, perhaps unexpectedly? Did you learn anything new about them – did you find your impression of them changing over the course of the debate?

To reiterate John F Kennedy – would you buy a used car from any of them?

Rowan is the Presenter Mentor, working on professional communications since 1989.
He has contributed to speeches, pitches, roadshows and profile-building with startups, upstarts, disruptors and established companies; honing their message and working with speakers on their presence, staging and delivery. He is a founding organiser of TEDxDublin events, and works with the majority of the speakers, preparing them for the 2,000-strong audience in the Grand Canal Theatre, honing their messages and visuals. He also speechwrites in every sphere except politics and prepares clients for media appearances on television, radio and in print. Some of his clients call him ‘The Presenter Mentor,’ others ‘The Insultant.’
Rowan describes himself, depending on the circumstance, as a writer, speaker, TED addict, husband, father or dancing bear. You’ll find him at RowanManahan.com or chirping away as @Rowan_Manahan.