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Page last updated at 10:04 GMT, Friday, 16 April 2010 11:04 UK

Picking over the prime ministerial debates


First Debate: The Highlights

By Rajini Vaidyanathan
BBC News Magazine

The first televised prime ministerial debate in UK election history was held on Thursday evening and there's much discussion about who came out best and worst on policy. But what about the other factors that might influence reaction?

After weeks of preparation and practice, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg finally took to the stage to debate. As soon as the credits rolled the party spin doctors were out in force telling the media hordes that their man had come out top.

The papers have heaped the most praise on Nick Clegg, but it'll be up to the voters to ultimately decide who they think fared best. In any of these television set-pieces it's not just about what the politicians say, but how they say it.

We've brought together a panel of experts to rate them and the event itself.


Dr Max Atkinson
NAME: Max Atkinson
EXPERTISE: Public speaking and speechwriting

"All three made extensive, and I would say excessive, use of anecdotes," says Max Atkinson.

Throughout the 90 minutes the leaders recalled stories about people they had met on the campaign trail to illustrate certain points. It's a classic speech making technique, which is often used by politicians to show a personal side, but in this case Mr Atkinson says it was overdone.

"They were all busy using anecdotes to show how in touch with the people they were, but it came across as a bit fake and a bit phoney."

View from back of studio
TV history... this is what it looked like

That said, he does have praise for many of the methods used by the three leaders.

"Nick Clegg came out with some rather good lines, and used alliteration and powerful imagery - phrases like 'pass the parcel' and 'bombarding blizzard' - to stress points."

The use of alliteration to hammer a point home is widely used in speechmaking, says Mr Atkinson, as is the rule of threes - making statements in three parts - something both Mr Cameron and Mr Brown demonstrated.

"Brown kept announcing he'd like to say three things about something, whereas Cameron used three-part phrases but didn't highlight them so you wouldn't have noticed. Cameron's use of the three-part list was more effective because it wasn't highlighted."

Another technique demonstrated by the politicians, was the use of contrasts, which our expert says can be very powerful.

In his closing statement Mr Cameron spoke of a choice between "hope and fear". In another passage Mr Clegg talked about the differing lengths of curriculum pages in England and Sweden.

Of the three leaders Mr Brown appeared to turn to his notes the most, to recount lists and facts, says Mr Atkinson. The Labour leader also cracked a few jokes.

"Gordon Brown came across as more relaxed than usual and maybe humour had something to do with that," he adds.

Ceril Campbell
NAME:Ceril Campbell
EXPERTISE: Celebrity stylist and personal coach

"When you put someone on a TV screen, most of the time you're looking only at their head and shoulders. So, the shoulders are the most important part of a man's suit, " says Ceril Campbell.

By her reckoning both Mr Brown and Mr Cameron were wearing bespoke, made-to-measure suits.

The movement you need... from top: Brown, Cameron, Clegg

"It shows in David Cameron's style - he has the best fitting, sharpest shoulder, which looks clean cut from all angles. It fitted immaculately. The shoulders on Gordon Brown's were not as well fitting, and his tie was wonky from the start."

Even though our expert believes Mr Clegg's suit wasn't bespoke, she thinks he demonstrated the most relaxed stance in his clothing.

"All three had very bright ties on," adds the stylist. "I've never seen politicians with such bright ties before."

Both the Lib Dem and Conservative leaders stuck with their party colours when it came to neckwear. Gordon Brown went bright, but plumped for a pink, deviating from the traditional Labour scarlet.

"It's not the same as wearing a red but it's close to it," says Ms Campbell.

From a style perspective, it is a "very flattering" colour for TV, but it's a brave choice not all men would make.

Brown's 'flattering' pink tie (right) alongside Clegg's and Cameron's

"It could be showing he's in touch with his feminine side... appealing to female voters."

Overall, Ms Campbell says the men were all immaculately turned out: "There was so little to choose between all three in what they were wearing that they practically merged into one."

"Nick Clegg looked the most relaxed, David Cameron the most sharply turned out, and Gordon Brown the most traditional."

Jason Vit
NAME: Jason Vit
EXPERTISE: ESU debate coach

"It must've been a tough situation for three speakers who are used to a highly engaged audience be it in parliament or at a rally," says Jason Vit.

Among the list of rules drawn up by broadcasters was a ban on the audience clapping or cheering during the debate - which can make the classic techniques of appealing to the crowd more testing, he argues.

"In terms of pure debating techniques, Brown delivered technical information clearly. Cameron was soft on arguments and high on rhetoric, and Clegg framed himself as the voice of reason away from the other two parties."

In debating competitions much can be gleaned from the way an opponent reacts to what someone else says, explains Mr Vit.

"In terms of facial expressions while the other person was speaking - Brown perhaps did a bit too much smiling and a little bit of a laugh, with Cameron there was perhaps too much frowning going on. Nick Clegg kept his expression neutral and turned side on once, when he was listening."

Overall, Mr Vit says all the candidates did well when it came to arguing their points: "Within the confines of the rules and regulations, they all used the right excuses to talk about their own stuff, and there was a decent level of engagement from everybody."


Dr Harry Witchel
NAME: Harry Witchel
EXPERTISE: Body language and psychobiology

"It was stilted at the beginning for all three of them," says Harry Witchel of the leaders' body language.

However, once the men got into their stride they displayed some interesting postures, he says.

"Nick Clegg sometimes put his hand in his pocket during the debate which look as if he was nervous."

Dr Max Atkinson
Hand in pocket... relaxed or nervous?

But Mr Witchel saw the Lib Dem leader warming up as time went on. "When he gestured towards the audience he often pointed with fingers spread - suggesting openness".

"Cameron looked at the audience and at his fellow debaters more than the others. But he was not as casual as Clegg. I felt he slightly held back."

"Brown looked steady and determined... but the way he holds his neck sometimes, is so his head is bent to the right as if his right ear is moving towards his shoulder... makes his body look twisted."

Our expert says there were moments when all three let their guard down, like the time Mr Brown joked the Conservatives had done him a favour by putting his image on the their election posters.

Hand gestures
Big on hand movements - Brown, Clegg and Cameron

"You can see both Cameron and Brown smiling and laughing. That was a very powerful moment... everybody became more human."

But their gestures also betrayed hints of antagonism, adds Witchel, noting the prime minister shaking his head when Mr Cameron made certain points, or the Conservative leader furrowing his brow when Nick Clegg spoke.

Mr Clegg seemed to be appealing to the cameras more, says Mr Witchel, in a way which looked "slightly rehearsed", while Mr Brown assumed an almost "Blair-like" posture as if he was hugging the viewer as he moved his hands up and down. Meanwhile Mr Cameron's right hand was often in a lightly held fist "as if he was being a strong man".


Anila Baig
NAME: Anila Baig
EXPERTISE: Features writer and former TV reviewer

"It was all right, it was long and it could've done with a break. I was thinking I could do with putting the kettle on or nipping to the loo," says Anila Baig, a features writer for the Sun newspaper.

"I was engaged most of the time. I did flick channels at one point, about an hour in, but it didn't feel as if it had dragged."

The debates aren't just a piece of political history, they are a piece of TV history. The first aired in a prime time slot on ITV1, immediately after Coronation Street, but for Ms Baig at least, this first outing lacked a sense of entertainment, because of the ban on the audience clapping.

The set
The set which framed the three leaders

"There were times when I laughed or groaned at home and I thought it would've been more natural to have heard the audience do the same.

"There were a couple of times when they did raise a titter. But it was very serious and controlled."

Framing it all was ITV's set, although Ms Baig wasn't impressed.

"It reminded me of a kids' programme, or a Question of Sport, or Going for Gold - because of the stripes," she adds.

"Gordon Brown said at the end that he knew it wasn't Britain's Got Talent or the X Factor - it really wasn't," jokes Ms Baig.

"They should've had a break or it should've been shorter."

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