Harper’s weird but effective debate strategy

Some engagement with opponents - but mostly Stephen Harper talked to the television audience

The English language election debate was televised last night in Canada. Four political leaders debated the issues of the day but one dominated, because of his body language.

Conservative leader Stephen Harper stuck to conventional political debate wisdom – speak to your audience not your opponents. Each time he was challenged or asked a question, Harper turned away from the questioner and spoke directly to the camera.

When an opponent spoke, Harper turned to him and fixed him with a cold stare, until the person finished speaking. At one point, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff faltered under Harper’s unflinching gaze. Harper kept up this routine of speaking to the camera and staring at his challengers for the whole debate.

Eye contact with the listener is important. It says you’re a leader. It says you’re assertive. Harper chose to make eye contact with the audience watching at home, rather than his opponents in the studio. It looked weird and felt rude, because he was ignoring the 3 other leaders in the room. Because he repeated this gesture constantly, it looked wooden, insincere. But political analysts are saying it enabled him to appear calm and non-confrontational, avoiding get sucked into a political shouting match with his rivals.

Harper spoke with a soft, modulated tone. His voice was different from the passionate tones of the other leaders. If you spaced out during the debate and the voices blended into white noise, Harper’s smooth tones bought you back.

Finally Harper pretty much ended each of his segments with a smile. He was consistent in this type of delivery for 2 hours. He never got emotional. He was totally controlled.

Did this body language convey arrogance and disdain? Or did it make viewers feel he was really talking to them, caring about them? We’ll know on May 2 when Canadians cast their vote.


Leave a comment