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.
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!