Tory PM contest – leadership lessons

For those of us who are both political geeks and communication fanatics, the Tory leadership race is making compulsive viewing. As there are plenty of experts in political geekery we’ll concentrate on what we know best – the comms lessons:

1. Metaphors are worth their weight in gold. Mostly.

When all the candidates are middle aged men and all but one of them graduates of the same university, memorability is all about colourful stories and metaphors. In the first leadership debate (on Sky and absent the frontrunner), the best metaphor prize also went to the plucky outsider, Rory Stewart. “The fundamental issue here is there is a competition of machismo. Everyone is saying ‘I’m tougher’. Every time I have this debate everyone is like, ‘trust me, I’m the guy, I can defeat the impossible odds’. It reminds me of trying to cram a whole series of rubbish bags into the rubbish bin … I was tempted to say ‘believe in the bin, believe in Britain!’. It’s nonsense.” The statement raised the first applause of the evening. And the first laughter.

Buoyed by this success, he tried to repeat the trick in the second debate on Tuesday evening. “In the end we’re in a room with a door and the door is called parliament, and I am the only person here trying to find a key to the door. Everybody else is staring at the wall shouting ‘believe in Britain’”. A neat response, except that it was immediately undermined by Michael Gove’s quip “We’ve run into that door three times already!” The lesson? Think through extended metaphors from all (figurative) angles.

2. Pay attention to body posture.

The bar-stool seating for the BBC debate was painful to watch. Man-spreading by Johnson, feet turned at right angles by Javid and Stewart’s decision to stretch his feet to the floor rather than fall in line with the others accentuated the awkwardness. The best of the bunch were Hunt and Gove, who kept it simple, feet straight, nice straight back, relaxed shoulders. They looked the least uncomfortable and the most composed.

3. Tune in to the questioner as well as the question.

Among the many challenging questions frontrunner Boris Johnson will have been prepping ahead of his first appearance was his vulnerability to accusations of Islamophobia, given his widely reported description of veiled women resembling letter boxes and bank robbers.

In the event, the question was posed by Abdullah, an Imam from a Mosque in the southwest, who asked very simply if words have consequences. Without missing a beat, Boris launched into a well-rehearsed if slightly wooden defence, noting that his great grandfather was Muslim and positioning his inflammatory comments in the context of journalistic license. His error was to fail to pay close attention to the questioner as well as the question, excruciatingly referring to him as “Our friend from Bristol” and “My friend over there”, instead of using his name. Words do have consequences Boris, especially forgetting people’s names.