06.05.2014 07:31 PM

In Friday’s Sun: how to win a political debate

I’ve had the privilege to help get Prime Ministers and Premiers ready for political debates. I always tell them debates are really just about two things.

One, looking and sounding like a leader. Two, using the debate to ratify your issues and policies.

That’s it.

Ontario’s leaders debate contained a few surprises, but no so-called ‘defining moments.’ Watching it, ten lessons can be drawn, for future political leaders to clip and save.

1. Undersell and overperform. Conservative leader Tim Hudak’s spinners did nothing to contradict the pre-debate impression that he was going to have a lousy night. Hudak’s strategy paid dividends: to everyone’s surprise, he looked and sounded like the winner.

2. TV is pictures. It’s 70 per cent how you look, 20 per cent how you say it, and ten per cent what you actually say. It almost didn’t matter that his economic plan has been shredded by the experts – because Hudak looked confident and in control. NDP leader Andrea Horwath sometimes appeared uncertain, and kept checking her cue cards. And Ontario Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne waved her arms around like a drowning person. Hudak won the pictures war.

3. Facts tell, stories sell. Lawyers, doctors, engineers and bureaucrats are lousy communicators – because, when stressed-out, they rely on jargon and acronyms and statistics. They don’t tell stories; they regurgitate factoids. Wynne is like that: too often, she seems more like a Deputy Minister than a Premier. Hudak and Horwath, meanwhile, remembered they were guests in our living rooms, and spoke accordingly. It worked.

4. Debates are like rock’n’roll: Chuck Berry once said that it should take a long time to craft a great song – but only two minutes to sing it. So too political debates. You need to research your issue, and know it backwards and forwards. But you also need to be able to express it in a very brief elevator conversation. Hudak and Horwath did that.

5. KISS! Keep It Simple, Stupid, Bill Clinton advisor James Carville once wrote on the Democratic Party’s war room wall. The key, in debates, is to recall that voters have very busy lives, and no time to wade through political verbiage. Hudak was mocked by his adversaries for sounding like a salesman – but only because they know, in their hearts, that Hudak kept it simple, and made the sale.

6. It’s about “we,” not “me.” Voters know that politicians occupy a world filled with power and fame. They know that political life is not everyday life. But, just the same, voters want to feel that political leaders understand the challenges of their daily lives. They want to hear leaders talk about them (the “we”), and not just themselves (the “me”). Hudak won the debate because he constantly used the right pronoun.

7. Have two or three priorities, not 100. Former Prime Minister Paul Martin – who has been stumping for Wynne, and whose inexpert inner circle runs her campaign – once said that, if you have 100 priorities, you don’t have one. And he was right (but he didn’t ever follow his own advice). In the debate, Wynne and Horwath often recited laundry lists of policies, leaving Hudak to talk about his one main priority, jobs.

8. TV is about emotion, not information. Hudak knew that, and acted on it. He didn’t lecture or hector: he was easy-going and told stories. On TV, that’s the only approach that wins hearts and minds.

9. Don’t be melodramatic. TV is a cool medium, McLuhan said, and you can’t get too hot. Hudak’s one mistake was to occasionally get too-theatrical – Hope is on the way! I’ll resign if I don’t do what I say! – and he accordingly sounded silly. (Justin Trudeau could benefit for remembering this one, as well.)

10. Smile. Smile! Politics is a crazy business – and sometimes you just need to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Hudak looked like he was enjoying himself. The other two didn’t.

Hudak won the debate – but that doesn’t mean he’s won the election. He may have observed all the above rules, sure.

But we still don’t know if anyone actually bothered to tune in!



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    Kaiser Helmets 'n Motorbikes says:

    Exceeding well said. A set of lessons that will need to be re-learned only IF television is still around in forty (or four) years.

    Perhaps bigger question is, what is the future delivery of debates? And even more concerning, if a debate takes place in the forest, will anyone see it?

    As I watched the Ontario debate I had this nagging feeling that I was the only person watching it. The next day at my barber shop, I asked Vinnie what he thought of the debate, his answer was both shocking and expected. The man who knows everything that is happening in Ottawa had not bothered to watch, “I prefer Netflix now.”

    So, after studying Nixon-Kennedy for half a century, and forty years after McLuhan explained it to us, have we mastered TV just in time to watch it fade to black?


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    Craig says:

    Said this before, gotta say it again. There is no way Hudak dominated that debate. He may have tried to pass as a raconteur with all those stories, but they came across so disingenuous. His scripted anecdotes about family road trips, dad’s math quizzes in the station wagon, and sunny afternoons on the Petrolia farm should be enough to make any self-voter puke. His delivery reminded me of that card-board elementary school acting but with a hint of reptilian. And those supplicated open hands – really? I wonder what book on body language he flipped through for that tip: “Hey, Deb, look here…it says if you open your arms and hands…it makes it look like you are honest an have nothing to hide…you think I should use it during my talking points?” Come on, there’s no way he won that. Truth is, they were all pretty shitty. The choice comes down to which one comes off as the least phony, and Hudak fails miserably on that score.

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      TrueNorthist says:

      Yep, pretty much as I saw it too. If there is one thing I am sure of, it is that we would not be wondering who is poised to win right now if Hudak were not leading the PCs. An inanimate carbon rod would be more sincere and believable and the PCs would be running away with it. I will never understand why parties sometimes stick with terrible leaders and repeatedly snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, even when they know the boss is a huge liability. But who knows, the OLP is pretty ripe for the picking. The NDP may yet split the vote enough for the PCs to sneak into office. But I simply cannot see them getting more than a slim minority and even that is a stretch.

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    Darwin O'Connor says:

    So the real question is, how can we change how our democracy functions so that everything you say becomes wrong?

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    JT says:

    Who was the genius that picked the airtime for the debate? I get off work relatively early, got home, cut the grass, ate dinner and then eagerly flipped on the TV to catch some preamble and commentary only to find out the program had been on for an hour! Unfortunately I didn’t have the foresight to check the programming schedule. However I’m sure there were plenty of people in this province who weren’t even home by the time the debate was over. If this singular event is so important to help voters make a decision, why wasn’t it scheduled at a time that reaches the maximum audience? Maybe I’m an idiot for not checking the time, but I was pissed off. The timing was ridiculous.

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      Matt says:

      The networks had negotiations with the three parties. The date and time were agreed to by everyone involved.

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    Ken Sellazanazole says:

    Fun facts. Kinsella was a low level staffer with little to nothing to do with Liberal wins under Jean Cretin. Kinsella was involved with Ontario Liberal campaigns of the most corrupt, incompetent and thuggish government in Ontario history. The garbage that is Dolton Mcgunity. The advice Kinsella lists here could be easily duplicated via any related Google search. Kinsella’s hero James Carville is a disgusting reptile from the Clinton era and arguably the single most sleazy human being on plant earth.

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      Matt says:

      Is that you John Tory?

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      sezme says:

      But you, sir, set an example for all of us in the area of human decency. Please come back often with more lessons on writing with grace and tact.

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    Al in Cranbrook says:

    One of your best posts ever, and why I keep comin’ back here.

    I watched that presentation with the MSM that Hudak did early on, video posted by Sun News, and that’s what I saw that convinced me he had it together. And I knew then, if he brought that to the debate, he would be in command. And clearly he was.

    My gut feeling is that he sealed the deal with a lot of the fence sitters looking for an excuse to take a chance on him, and thus get the kind of real change in direction so many want to see.

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      Al in Cranbrook says:

      I agree that the “I’ll resign” was taking it that one little step too far, but for which most would forgive him.

      We all remember how that worked out for Sheila Copps.

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        tf says:

        I can’t see it – Hudak is from the rehearsed and phoney silo of politician. There isn’t a natural inch to that pasted-on grin.

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      que sera sera says:

      I suspect “brown” is Al’s favorite colour – and those aren’t exactly freckles on his nose.

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      Patrick says:

      Hudak lost some of the fence sitters in Ottawa when he said he would not fund the second phase of light rail yesterday. He was given the opportunity to clarify his position and say that funding would be available after the budget was balanced but simply said “no we can’t afford it.” Sounds like a lot of people here are pissed at his double standard – funding for subways in the GTA but nothing for Ottawa. The local PC candidates were quick to try and put a positive spin on it but I think you will see a lot of fence sitters who were ready to vote for someone other than the Liberals go back to the Liberals and it could cost the PCs ridings that are close.

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    Al in Cranbrook says:

    An aside, but relevant, given the issue in this election…


    Bit of a lengthy read, author summarizes 26 peer reviewed papers on the effects of taxes on economic growth.

    23 out of the 26 conclude that taxes have a negative affect.

    Tax cuts, accordingly, are an effective economic stimulus, ultimately increasing government revenues.

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      doris says:

      You had to dig deep for that one Al and what do you expect from the taxfoundation – who funds it now. Throw in a couple of Jack Mintz’s speeches and papers and add to the pile that the Fraser Institute puts out. All predictable stuff and only preaching to the choir

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    Beth Higginson says:

    I certainly did not feel that Tim Hudak won. This is a guy who has never held a real job. After school he went on unemployment as why work when he could be on unemployment and then he became an MPP. Everytime I see him, I think he looks worse and is insincere. I found Andrea Horvath to be annoying and I felt that Kathleen Wynne ended up strong and my friends feel the same.

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    sezme says:

    This might be good analysis, and might even be true. But! The result is that what you’re saying is that the best liar wins (the debate).

    This is what drives me crazy about elections. And I know I’m part of the problem as well, but we spend so much time talking about how parties and politicians craft their messages, because it’s much easier to debate that than the substance of those messages.

    So the narrative that Hudak won with the most polished performance carries the day, while the actual plan that he brought forward gets ignored in the process. Has he ever explained how eliminating the deficit in 2 rather than 3 years is going to attract more investments to the province? Has he ever explained why his hard medicine (100K fewer good jobs) is going to create 1,100K more jobs? Doesn’t matter; he never stopped smiling, he told a good story, and he held his hands just so.

    And I don’t mean to pick on Hudak unnecessarily. He did what he had to do, and all the leaders try to look like ‘winners’ in these debates. But in the end, it’s mostly just empty posturing for the cameras (e.g. Wynne, who refused to look anywhere but at the cameras).

    I’d like to think the electorate is too smart to fall for gimmicks, but Rob Ford is mayor of Toronto, so…

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    Bill Templeman says:

    Warren, Politicians would pay big bucks for those 10 rules for debates. Brilliant.

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    Emil E says:

    Just heard that Justin Trudeau has accompanied Wynne at an campaign gathering somewhere in Ontario to a crowd of over 300 supporters.

    Do you think Justin is trying to ride on the coattails of Kathleen because the Butts strategists smell victory.. or are they trying to rescue Wynne with Justin’s charisma on the hustings?!

    Stay tuned….

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    Steven says:

    Wynne should have jumped down Hudak’s throat when he talked about the financial drain caused by the public sector.

    He is a second-generation public servant and his wife has built a rather good nest egg herself thanks to taxpayers.

    Don’t get me started about Horwath channeling Rob Ford’s “respect for the taxpayer”!

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    Barleyboy says:

    Re: Point 1. Hudak sounded like a winner. Are you kidding me?? He sounded like a Tea Partier. And looked as sweaty as Richard Nixon.
    Re: Point 2 – All three used their hands and arms waaaay too much. Have one of those debates once a week and you can shut down every windmill on Lake Erie’s north shore.
    Re: Point 10 – If the smile isn’t natural, don’t do it. When Hudak tired – while telling his family anecdotes – it was downright creepy. Smile like he does around a schoolyard and IMHO, someboby’s gonna call the cops.
    And Andrea, well I don’t believe a word she says. Remember during the last election she told a whopper about her son’s treatment at a Hamilton hospital.
    Conclusion: The hour or so I spent watching that debate is time I’ll never get back. I like the Liberal candidate in my riding, so I’m gonna hold my nose and vote for him.

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