What the TV debates will really reveal

Set-piece sparring contests have long been part of US politics. Here, four experts explain what to look out for when the party leaders go live
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Indy Politics

Sir Bernard Ingham was Margaret Thatcher's press secretary.

"I have four concerns. First of all, these events are only fair if all the parties taking part are included and given a fair hearing; the more parties proliferate, the more pointless it becomes in terms of serious debate. Second, while I would have had no doubt about Margaret Thatcher's ability to win [if she had participated in a TV debate], I do not think elections should be potentially decided on a media event. Third, I doubt the ability of the media to produce a fair moderator. Fourth, what is the point of trying to take serious issues to the public using a medium that has the attention span of a gnat?

"The only thing that these projected debates reinforce is the view that Gordon Brown is desperate – and desperately foolish, given his public persona. Politics have always been partly driven by personality. ... Personality was terribly important before TV – not a leader's bedside manner but the public's assessment of his or her strength of character – but issues are also very important because they differentiate ideologies. Thanks to TV and the dumbing down generally of the media, including broadsheets as well as tabloids, personality has taken over.

"The leaders will want to make sure they cover four things: what they wish to get over; likely controversial issues and the stance of each party on them; strengths and weaknesses of each participant; and the demeanour to be adopted. Frankly, preparing people for these events is no different from preparing them for Panorama, Weekend World or similar programmes from my day, there is just seemingly more riding on them. All three leaders say they are looking forward to the debates. I don't know if that's true, but if they are then quite clearly they are mad and not to be voted for."

Judi James is a body-language and behavioural expert.

"Work on the premise that nothing they do will be genuine, and you won't go far wrong! All real emotions will have been liposuctioned out of them before the debate and only Brown will have the potential to go off-piste if he gets rattled or annoyed. The other two have got faces that look botoxed, so no clues there. Assume that their chosen postures, facial expressions and hand gestures are all part of some insidious ploy to brainwash the voters.

"Look for the fiddly things their hands or feet do in between the major clashes. Brown tends to pick his nails, do that drop-kick thing with his chin and wipe his hands through his hair when he's ruffled. Cameron does an eye-dart from side to side, plus he gets a little bit spitty. Clegg just breathes. Clegg is like the bloke on a presentation skills training course who is so good you struggle to stay awake.

"Ever popular with politicians is the long pause before answering, the creeping use of the term 'you know' when they don't know, and the very naughty 'the question you should be asking is...' when they want to duck out altogether. Watch the eye-roll, too. Recalled memory means the eyes often tend to move to the left, while creative thinking means they roll to the right. When their blink rate increases, they're petrified, and when they poke the tip of the tongue out from between their lips it means they're disgusted by the question. I think Blair's favourite; using the word 'Look...' at the start of an answer was supposed to imply an honest, down to earth response. Politicians are rarely either, so smell a rat.

"If they're truly smart and up for taking risks we could just see some form of apparent randomness occur. I believe that getting it all right means getting it all wrong with the voters these days. We live in an era where our ridicule can quickly turn to pity; think of Susan Boyle and Jedward. Being too slick or too clever risks suffering from the Tall Poppy Syndrome, and we in the UK love to smash down anyone doing too well. We also like picking up those we have previously trashed though, as it makes us feel magnanimous. Brown has never looked comfortable in his own skin and historically that has counted against him, but if his spin doctors judge the tide of public opinion well it could work in his favour. John Major was always described as grey and boring, which set his advisors into panic. They achieved some change, but what they failed to realise was that 'boring' also meant 'honest' in the eyes of the electorate. So any negatives in a politician's body language can cause a good kind of ridicule; if it's seen as authenticity it could glean votes.

"It's not wrong to judge another human by their visual signals. It's how animals assimilate information about one another and it does tend to be more accurate than listening to scripted words or trying to judge by their deeds, which are smothered by spin and propaganda. In many ways it's the only access we have to anything real about our politicians."

Frank Luntz is a political analyst and pollster.

"Televised presidential debates in the United States are watched by tens of millions of viewers, are a vital tool in the election process and it's unthinkable that a candidate would refuse to appear, however uncomfortable they might be with the prospect of live debating. George Bush senior was not a good debater and was reluctant to take part, often delaying debates with his challenger Bill Clinton in the 1992 re-election campaign. This led to the birth of 'Chicken George', a Democrat dressed as a huge, yellow-feathered bird that ran around town carrying a placard announcing 'Chicken George won't debate'. However nervous any of the main party leaders may be about public debating – and I don't think any of them are – it is inconceivable that any of them would decline to take part.

"The leader with the most to gain from these debates is surely Nick Clegg, and I believe it could be a breakthrough moment for the Lib Dems. Clegg has the opportunity to voice the public's anger over the political failures of Labour and the Tories and could potentially find himself as the voice of a nation whose trust in their representatives is at an all-time low. It would be ideal if he was placed in the middle of Brown and Cameron, and I'd like to see him extend both arms out wide, point at them and proclaim, 'This is the problem.' I'd bet money on a positive reaction from the studio audience!

"David Cameron is in danger of appearing as though he's acting – he's so polished I suspect he reminds voters of Blair in his early days. But the difference with Blair back in 1997 was that the electorate back then hadn't yet discovered that [Blair] was a master actor. Perhaps the naturally cynical British are now even more dubious about electing a Teflon-coated Prime Minister. No doubt Cameron will try and use the economic crisis to his advantage, repeating over and over that the credit crunch and the recession were presided over by Brown, both as Chancellor and as Prime Minister. I suspect the TV viewers won't like that too much; after all it's not new to their ears. Voters will want, and Cameron will need to ensure they hear, actual Tory policy instead of continuous mud-slinging. Cameron's lead in the opinion polls has shrunk dramatically of late and he is surely scratching his head. Perhaps his team will use the debates to finally state in full and with crystal clarity just how they plan to reduce the deficit and ensure the country recovers as speedily as possible. It's become a cliché, but he really does need to show he isn't all 'style over substance'.

"As for Gordon Brown, I believe he should go for the jugular. He is approaching these debates at a time when the opposition's lead in the polls has slipped, when revelations about his style of management seem in some perverse way to have helped increase his popularity, and on the back of a TV interview (on Piers Morgan's Life Stories) that didn't cause the ridicule some in the media were predicting. He is the most experienced man out of all three leaders and should use his knowledge to expose how ill-equipped Cameron is for office. Perhaps we could even see his tough side in a relentless attack on Cameron demanding statistics and figures that Cameron is unable to produce. It is also a great opportunity for Brown to highlight the inconsistencies in the Tories' policy. Perhaps with a flourish from his left breast-pocket he could produce Cameron's policy on taxation from 2008, and then do the same from his right pocket with the 2009 document. Each could be crumpled with a cry of "Which one is it, David, and how many more are there?" as they are thrown to the floor. Despite the media telling us all that everything we'll see is rehearsed and everything we'll hear is spin, these debates are a fantastic opportunity for those who don't usually take part in the political process to judge for themselves the parties, and in particular the men, jostling to take control of their country."

Pat Henshaw specialises in personal image coaching.

"I would first question them as to how they wish to appear, and what messages they are wanting to send out to the public at large. There are different techniques that can be employed to send out clear messages. For example, to appear approachable it is vital that the right colours are chosen. To look modern it is important that a lot of thought is given to the style of suit. Body language can portray friendliness and honesty, and the right tone of voice is key to appearing in control and knowledgeable.

"If you can't look after you own grooming you give the impression that you are out of control, which is not good for a politician. Cameron and Clegg look ok, but Brown's hair needs grooming and a more current look. And then of course there are his hands and those bitten finger nails. He also needs to eat fewer bananas and drink more water to get rid of the unsightly bags under his eyes.

"David could be a little more adventurous with his ties, and I am not sure what message he is sending out with the green one. A subtle tint to his shirts and a single-buttoned jacket would also update his style. All of them should be looking to patronise British designers – but not overly, like Tony Blair with the naked woman on his shirt cuffs. Some new, trendier ties wouldn't go amiss for Gordon – his look rather old, polyester affairs. Also, he is slightly portly, so a softer fabric in his suits would be more flattering to his shape. Stripes and bold checks should be avoided, as well as brand-new shoes, or worn-out soles and scruffy uppers.

It is a fact that the badly dressed person is remembered for what they wore, whilst the well-dressed person is remembered for their ideas and overall presence. As it's their ideas we're interested in, the two go hand in hand and the importance of getting it right cannot be underestimated!

Interviews by Joshua Martin