Body Language – What to look for during the General Election debates

Posted on April 2nd, 2015 by

Photograph of man avoiding negotiation

Tonight’s debate is essentially a sales pitch. The leaders of Labour, Ukip, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru will all be trying to sell their vision for Britain, and we’re the buyers. As with any sales pitch, there are two different forms of communication; verbal and non-verbal.

Unlike the last election debate, the two governing parties- the Conservatives and the Lib Dems- will sit out. This presents an interesting dynamic; Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader and First Minister of Scotland, will be the only party leader who leads a government in attendance while the Labour party will be the only party whose leader could realistically be Prime Minister after this election. With only one right wing party in attendance, don’t expect anyone to utter ‘I agree with Nigel’ too often.

The debate should be very interesting. In the aftermath, the news will be awash with quotes and analysis regarding the verbal communication, but there probably won’t be many talking about body language, which may be key to understanding the relationship dynamics between the leaders; leaders that will in all probability be tasked with negotiating agreements to form a government in the aftermath of the election. So here’s a simple guide on what to look for:

The Baseline

Everything’s relative. Before you can convincingly draw any conclusions, you need to know what people look like without stress or pressure. Body language is easier to read if you know how someone acts normally; it makes subtle differences more pronounced and reduces the risk of picking up on things that aren’t relevant to the situation.

As the debate begins with a minute opening statement from each leader, some of whom have never received that level of exposure and for some of whom it’s ‘make or break’, you may need to do some research here. Check out some low-key speeches or interviews on YouTube and look for how the politician reacts rather than what they say. Watch for:

  • Posture
  • Their eyes; where they’re looking when they know the answers, and where they’re looking when they don’t
  • The volume and pitch of their voice
  • Smiling
  • Face touching
  • Gestures; the frequency and type of gestures they’re making

Cluster signals

Body language is involuntary. The involuntary signals we use to read a person’s body language can also just be involuntary responses to the context in which we see them. A politician leaning forwards or glancing into the crowd may mean nothing on its own. Who’s to say they don’t have a bad back, or someone in the crowd isn’t wearing something really interesting?

If you are going to use body language as a tool to understanding the situation, you have to look for a little more than a single scratch of the nose or a glance to the left. If a signal truly means anything, it will not come alone. Make sure you’re vigilant – look for several involuntary signals in a short space of time, and listen for a trigger. If a politician suddenly looks really defensive when asked a tough question, chances are they aren’t comfortable with their answer.

Engagement behaviour

A leader displaying some of these traits beyond their base level may be displaying engagement behaviour:

  • Eye contact with questioner
  • Head nodding
  • Smiling
  • Leading forwards

Engagement behaviour indicates receptivity or agreement. In the context of the debates, we may see a leader displaying engagement behaviour when a question that they deem to be positive is asked, or they think they’re ‘on a roll’. A leader displaying these traits will be comfortable and at least believe that they are doing well.

Photograph of the Leaders in the General Election Debate

Disengagement behaviour

A leader displaying some of these traits beyond their base level may be displaying disengagement behaviour:

  • Leaning back
  • Looking away
  • Narrowed eyes
  • Frowns
  • Louder vocal volume

Disengagement behaviour indicates that the leader is defensive or angry. This will likely be down to the question or the tone of the debate. We might expect to see Nick Clegg leaning back when Farage talks about Europe. A leader displaying these traits will likely be upset about the tone of the debate or uncomfortable answering a particular line of questioning.

Stress signals

A leader displaying some of these traits beyond their base level may be displaying stress signals:

  • Face touching
  • Higher vocal tone
  • Hesitating during speech

Stress behaviour indicates bluffing or discomfort with the way the debate is going. Some of the leaders with less media experience may display these traits relatively openly should the debate head down the wrong path. Leaders with more media experience may exhibit these more subtly, so make sure you pay attention when you do your research!

Expect a leader to show these signals when unexpectedly asked about a policy that they know is fanciful. Natalie Bennett displayed all the vocal stress signals during her car crash radio interview with Nick Ferrari on LBC, in which she was asked about the Green’s housing policy. Should anyone else, especially one of the leaders with less media experience, be subject to a grilling on something they evidently haven’t read up on, we may be witness to some similarly telling scenes.

The things a politician says in a debate will not always tell the full story. Politics is about convincing the people that your vision is the most attractive, so every issue is framed in such a way as to make it fit in with their vision the best. These distortions may not be clear from their rhetoric, but their body language may provide an insight beyond what is carefully prepared by the spin doctors.