I’ve been thinking about the things that politicians do wrong on TV. Here’s my list:
1. Your voice: Avoid any of the old political accents.
The Tory ‘hice’ (instead of house) doesn’t go down well.
Nor for that matter does the New Labour accent. Saying ‘what’ as if it was pronounced ‘worh’, for instance, is a big turn off.
Your voice, when needs be, should be loud enough to warn ships off rocks. Never sound patronising (think “I do care” as a warning from history).
Avoid all those self-aggrandising inflections that have become Westminster cliches. “I say this to the British people”, “what the British public want”, “be in no doubt”, “I was taking to a lady in my constituency last week” are more grating than the prizewinner at the international cheese grater championship. They are imitative and imply a sense of inadequacy rather than confidence.
2. Your face. Importantly, make sure that your face plays an accompaniment to your voice. Make sure also that the emotions of your eyes and mouth are in the same neighbourhood. Eyes displaying anger when the mouth smiles, etc, are no nos. So too are instant expression changes. When you are in a studio or in front of camera you are live, even if the interview hasn’t started.
If you have been asked to give a short clip in response to something and the crew asks you to give the answer again, make sure that the answer is sizeably different and only give the answer twice. Don’t assume they’re after a better take for a soundbite. If you give an identical answer more than twice it will appear on YouTube within minutes as an example of your inability to depart from script.
You’re stuck with your face. Don’t try and adopt a cliched head of state look if it doesn’t suit you. Get advice on your hair from people who will tell you the truth. If you’re a man, you probably get one shot at changing your hair. If you’re balding, don’t try and hide it.
3. Interviews. Do every interview you can, whatever the costs. Turn nothing down. Embrace scrutiny. Some managed notoriety (well, within reason) is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you are the underdog.
Change tack towards the interviewer when under pressure: if in a bind following a difficult question, tack towards your inquisitor and signal at least some agreement with him/her, then bridge to another subject. Don’t use the old “the real question today is” manoeuver. It no longer works. The audience is much more media savvy than it was 10 years ago. They can sniff an avoidance technique instantly.
4. Stunts. There is now a case for choosing ideas that might belong in a Carry On movie. Posters are probably more of a waste of money. They are parodied in seconds.
5. Self-deprecation. Be prepared to laugh at yourself. Appear confidently fallible. People warm to this.
6. Dress. Something nostalgic can work if it squares with your image. Looking well turned out but 20 or 30 years out of date, for some, can be quite a good thing. Don’t default to a Marks and Spencer navy suit or you’ll look like a regional sales manager. Stand out a bit.
7. Pointing at things: this looks ridiculous.
8. Be the best bits of yourself: display a character that people of all persuasions will warm to. If you’re in a bind or have committed a faux pas, people will be more likely to forgive you.
9. Nostalgia. If you’re a cynic, or in real bind, evoke the past, ignore the future: play to sentiment and nostalgia, rose tinted glasses, Enid Blyton, lashings of ginger beer and pints at the Cricketer’s Arms.
10. A trusted outsider. Above all, find someone trustworthy outside of your inner circle (in the real world) who will tell you what they really think about the way you come across. All flippancy aside, it astonishes me that some politicians don’t attend to the mannerisms for which they are pilloried in the media.
You can’t change, and I’m not suggesting you do, but you should consider doing some housekeeping and ‘putting away’ of some of the mannerisms that people don’t warm to. We all have them. I used to have a tendency to change the subject sometimes directly after someone had said something. This wasn’t because I wasn’t listening, but that’s the way it felt. So I’ve worked on it and I don’t do it any more. I also used to say ‘but’ a lot and now I say ‘and’ where the ‘but’ used to be. Don’t kid yourself that what you perceive as authenticity (“the real me”) is better than the model of authenticity that your supporters crave.
That’s my 10p worth.