There’s been a big debate going on. No, not that one. But it’s been about that one, because various people have lined up to talk about how media training would affect last night’s leaders’ debate.
On Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday, one training company stressed the need to “deploy soundbites”.
But what the debate showed last night is a compelling performance is about so much more and if tweets are any indication of public sentiment, the wider audience will recoil from anyone who appears to be overtly – and overly – media trained. For us, this comes down to the wrong kind of media training.
As expected, many soundbites were “deployed” and the BBC’s “worm” even indicated when they triggered a significant reaction. So we had Natalie Bennett with her “austerity heavy and austerity light”; David Cameron’s “doctors with stethoscopes, not bureaucrats with clipboards”; Nick Clegg’s “Britain open for business, not open to abuse,” and on access to higher education, Nicola Sturgeon talked of it being based on an “ability to learn, not an ability to pay”.
All memorable stuff. But when every leader deploys soundbites, they can quickly cancel each other out. Soundbites alone will not satisfy a truth-hungry public and there were other notable communications techniques on display tonight that played a part.
Natalie Bennett was quick to employ a “word picture” to describe what she believed Government cuts meant when she talked about a children’s centre. In doing so, she illustrated a wider point by referring to one example.
Nicola Sturgeon seemed to let her body language do some of the talking with a relaxed stance and plenty of smiling. Of all the leaders she looked the one most pleased to be there. Never underestimate the visual impression.
Nigel Farage wasn’t afraid to repeat a message: “I said they were all the same!” he kept telling us. As for Clegg and Cameron, they both seemed especially keen to use the word “balance”.
Ed Miliband created a big stir on Twitter with his finger-pointing and thumb-on-fist emphasising – a legacy of Blair, who’d arguably got it from that masterful communicator Bill Clinton perhaps? Regardless of your political persuasion, it was hard not to be distracted by it and miss the message. This looked like an over-played hand in every sense…
One media training lesson that appeared to have been forgotten by some was how you should always explain acronyms and terms that might be lost on the audience. Tonight “PFI hospital” and “austerity” were two of the most searched-for terms on the internet. That’s bad enough in itself, but while the public is Googling for explanations, they’re missing the next point.
So who came out best? Nicola Sturgeon’s performance has been widely applauded. Why? Well, I’d put it down to several elements – she managed to sound spontaneous; she showed plenty of levity; she looked relaxed and was clear and concise. Those months of campaigning for Scottish independence meant she was match-fit. Float like a butterfly sting like an SNP bee.
So what did we learn from the debate? Well, not who will govern us after May 7th, that’s for sure.
But we did learn that media training should always be viewed as a means to an end, it’s never an end in itself. It’s there to help you build the story, it should not be the story. And if you allow yourself to believe it’s all about soundbites and key messages, don’t be surprised if the public decides those weapons of words have misfired.
Above all, media training is not a replacement for the natural, it should enhance it.
That’s when you have a winner.