The nationally televised leaders’ debate was fascinating from a communications standpoint. Very early into the debate it became clear who had received the best media and communications training. It was Stephen Harper.
Now, these are not necessarily tricks to be employed by anyone in any setting. These tricks were perfectly suited to the hostile nature of an election debate and served Harper well in distancing himself from rivals.
Here are three things he did well:
1. Effective bridging. When confronted by accusations by the other leaders, he would not respond back directly to them. Instead, he bridged to his own message. He started many, many rebuttals with “Let’s be clear here..” and then stated his message. Using “let’s be clear here..” is effective bridging technique for distancing ones self from what was just said, and then communicating what you want to be heard.
2. Harper knew his target audience. He continually looked at the camera where the viewers were. Even when the other leaders could be heard challenging and trying to interrupt Harper, the PM stayed the course and continued to talk to the camera. On the flipside, Michael Ignatieff failed when it came to looking at the camera. He got caught up in thinking Harper was his target and kept looking at Harper, rather than at the camera.
3. Harper was coached well on tone of voice. He used a steady, soft tone the entire evening. Even when other leaders tried to antagonize him, he responded with a soft, calm tone — when some issues became heated, he softened his tone even more. This showed discipline and was a dramatic contrast to the other leaders who raised their voices. Harper used a calm voice to convey confidence in leadership. Remember, his party is campaigning on “steady leadership” and “staying the course.”
Did Harper’s approach work? It’s hard to say if technique trumped voter loyalty. A flash poll conducted by Ipsos Reid immediately following the English-language debate found 42 per cent of viewers thought Harper won, followed by 25 per cent who thought Jack Layton won.