With the General Election in the UK on the horizon, here are things to look for from the candidates who will be appearing soon (too soon; and possibly, for too long) on the media outlet of your choice as they vie for your vote.
The problem with blanket coverage, is that it can make you want to crawl under the duvet – and the people who appear on the ballot papers aren’t immune to this. At election time, you’ll also find rhetoric out in full force, and politicians love to use arguments that appear much more attractive and convincing than they ought to be. So here we present our list of things to look out for.
When someone has said a ‘soundbite’ too often, they forget the meaning of the words and let muscle memory take over. Watch what happens when they slow down, get interrupted or have to think about what they are saying – the look of panic that steals into their eyes and they hear their own words as if for the first time.
Everyone is desperate to be on-message: ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand,’ said Lincoln before the Civil War. A modern, watered down version of this is that parties have to be unified, even if they give the impression of behaving like a herd of cats. So expect to see interviewers and political rivals alike trying to trick candidates into stepping off the tightrope of their party’s manifesto in an unguarded moment.
DOWN THE BARREL
Ed Miliband tried this in the Leadership Debate: rather than answering the question to the interviewer, he looked down the camera lens as if to speak directly to the viewer at home. It was terrifying.
Not everyone is ‘allowed’ to look into the camera: newsreaders, quiz show hosts, presenters: yes. If you are doing a ‘down the line’ interview: yes. Pretty much everyone else: no. Looking into the camera can give you a sense of authority and status, but if you over play your hand, you risk looking presumptuous, as though you are invading the viewer’s home. Television captures the relationships between people in the studio talking to each other. Looking into the camera is ‘breaking the fourth wall’ and it can look decidedly out of place.
APPEALS TO AUTHORITY
Tony Blair turned up to support Ed Miliband, which is a great illustration of why this can work, and also why it can’t. If you think Tony Blair is the best prime minister this country has ever had, his endorsement of Miliband is a huge boost to the Labour leader. If you don’t like Blair, his endorsement won’t impress you much.
There are many more subtle versions of this: how many times has a politician said that ‘the figures don’t add up’? (Which figures? And who is wielding the calculator?) See also ‘research’: there are plenty of researchers out there with a vested interest – and it’s often possible to cherry pick the best figures. In the cut and thrust of debate, it’s almost impossible to quote sources in full and have a nuanced argument, and picking the good figure out of a mass of bad news is human nature (which for the sake of argument we’re applying to politicians too).
Celebrity endorsements also come under this category: expect a fair few entertainers to threaten to leave the country if one party or another gets into power: though this is a threat more often made than acted on.
Attacking a person’s character is in the box file marked ‘dirty tricks’ but that doesn’t stop people using it in debate.
Financial chicanery is the gold standard for this technique: a criminal conviction is seen as ideal, but the whiff of underhand dealings is sometimes more subtle and more persuasive. This is the reason why the expenses scandal caused such a problem – politicians could scarcely complain about a feckless underclass ‘working the system’ when they were doing exactly the same thing themselves. The clumsy meeting of ‘legal’ with ‘moral’ (‘It’s legal, but it’s not right,’) makes the voter think again about who gets the cross next to their name on the big day.
This is also why Cameron, Clegg and Miliband have been so keen to be seen with their wives: outside of politics, the women have kept relatively down-to-earth, uncorrupted and sane.
As the debate hots up, expect tittle-tattle from disgruntled ex-girl- and boyfriends until polling day.
MAKING THE DATA PERSONAL
No more than a fortnight ago, we were recommending this course of action to a speaker. Statistics are great, but if you can illustrate them with a personal story, so much the better. Making data personal isn’t wrong – but you do need the data to back it up otherwise you just have an anecdote, and anecdotes are powerful, but not necessarily accurate statements of reality.
It was Joseph Stalin who said that ‘One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic,’ and we voters have been represented as ‘Mondeo Man’, ‘Holby City Woman’, and various other one-size-doesn’t-fit-all stereotypes.
We might know a stereotype, but we are unlikely to think of ourselves as one.
Expect to hear all about sweet old ladies waiting for hip replacements, brave ex-servicemen on their uppers and, of course, ‘hard working families’ (which we think makes it sound like the children are forced up chimneys for a few extra farthings).
Misrepresenting the opposition’s view is fun, satisfying, and allows the politician to rail against his opponent’s supposed iniquities without troubling the truth.
The ‘right’ love to hack at public services like Norman Bates and the ‘left’ are sending out working parties to bolt a 56” flat screen TV to every asylum seeker’s penthouse apartment… of course they don’t but that’s no reason not to paint a colourful picture.
If a politician looks like they are having too much fun talking about the other side’s policies, check your antihistamines – there is likely to be a straw man close enough to bring on an attack of hay fever.
If you sign up to Facebook, you will neglect your work, you’ll lose your home, and end up destitute and friendless. Fortunately most of us have enough of a sense of balance to get off Facebook once in a while – but balance has never been part of political debate. Sensible, measured policies can be construed as obvious disasters if taken to the nth degree.
The slippery slope argument is that alcoholics exist, and therefore, nobody should ever have a Friday night pint ever again. Keep your ears tuned for the political equivalent.
IF BY WHISKEY
Leaving the best until last, this is our favourite rhetorical device, and is, quite simply, appealing to both sides of the argument simultaneously.
The quirky name for this comes from a speech given by Noah S Sweat Jr. on the subject of whether or not the state of Mississippi should legalise alcoholic drinks. Here is the speech, edited heavily to be succinct whilst retaining the flavour of the original. The full version can be found here online.
‘You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey:
If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children, then certainly I am against it.
But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.
This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.’
Very difficult to pull off with credibility!
The next time you see a politician caught in the middle of an argument – or find yourself in a similar position yourself – think about these ticks and tropes. They might get you out of trouble, or highlight the trouble you are in.