Uncomfortable to watch? Body language at the debate

Tuesday 16 February 2016 13.36
The leaders' debate through the eyes of a body language expert
The leaders' debate through the eyes of a body language expert

Body language and communications expert Rowan Manahan watched last night's Claire Byrne Live Leaders' Debate from a different perspective. He looked at the hand gestures, the facial expressions and the various debating strategies.

This morning, Mr Manahan spoke to Conor McMorrow of RTÉ's Political Staff to give his assessment of the two-hour debate at the University of Limerick.


Overall Assessment – 'uncomfortable to watch'

Rowan Manahan, said: "Mike Myers, as Austin Powers, introduced the phrase, 'Judo chop!' into the vernacular and the candidates last night had obviously all seen that movie.

"I have never seen so many hands bashing up and down emphasising every syllable they were saying.

"My overall impression was that all of the leaders were haranguing me. Overall, there was very little 'authenticity' in their performances.

"I have to say, I found the debate very uncomfortable to watch. I was not reassured – not by their words and very much not by their non-verbal cues and behaviour."

Mr Manahan's lasting impressions from the body language on display last night were that there was "lots of dismissive 'you shouldn't take him seriously' behaviour towards Gerry Adams. People talked over him.

"There were dismissive words and tone from Micheál Martin, Enda Kenny and Joan Burton.

"It is obvious that the large parties are spooked by Sinn Féin's strong showing and their behaviour in this debate reflects that.

"No-one interrupted Richard Boyd Barrett because they don't take him seriously as a threat to their base. Sinn Féin is the bogeyman in this election to Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour."


Enda Kenny, Fine Gael 

Mr Manahan said: "TV debates and media are a part of the game that a skilled politician has to be able to do. Lots of column inches have been devoted to the view that he does not put himself out for interviews enough.

"This was a major moment for any leader and Enda Kenny had most to lose. So he plays the percentages in that he does not display emotion and he bottles it up.

"You can see he was irked by some of the things his opponents were saying. You get the feeling he would love to let rip but he bottles it up. This can make him look passionless. This is also seen in his tone of voice.

"His lack of passion came through in the tone of his voice and the unending monotone of his voice. It was rarely varied. I would say this has been beaten into all of the leaders by the handlers.

"We hear anecdotally, and anyone who has met him knows, that he is a warm person. He is more effective in person and more ineffective on camera. The only time I heard him display emotion vocally was when he was needling others.

"He seems scared of Gerry Adams, he kept talking over the Sinn Féin leader. He didn't bother doing that with Lucinda Creighton or Richard Boyd Barrett. He kept mentioning the phrase Fianna Fáil and this shows that was on his mind.

"On a positive note, under great stress over a long period of debate he maintained control. Nobody was giving him credit for how hard he is working. Nothing coming from anyone else on the stage towards him was positive. It can be very hard to sit there and take that for the two hours with the cameras rolling."


Joan Burton, Labour

Mr Manahan said: "Her strategy was to attack Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin and to cite her accomplishments. She knows how much trouble she is in so she kept reminding people of the dangers of voting for Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil.

"She used sharp pointy gestures. Most of them do the up and down cutting gesture with their hand. This gives speakers vocal energy as they expand and contract their rib cage with their arms. She also engaged in four finger pointing and one finger pointing. This is something that your mother tells you not to do.

"She did a couple of 'we're all in this together' gestures. For example a wide hand spread taking in everyone else on the stage. That struck me as being an unnatural gesture for her. She didn't do her frozen grin that she does quite often. It is a common gesture for her but she didn't do that last night.

"She did a lot of 'speak over' and she said the word lie to Gerry Adams when she said: 'That's a lie Gerry, like many of your other lies.' That was later in the debate and her frustration was building. She may have felt she was not scoring from positive remarks, so she turned to negative remarks.

"At that stage fatigue is a factor after a long debate. Most speeches you give in a professional environment would be 30 minutes at most. The camera is on you for a long time here so fatigue set in for all the leaders."


Mícheál Martin, Fianna Fáil 

On the Fianna Fáil leader, Mr Manahan said: "Micheál Martin is good at this and obviously enjoys going into this. His vocal flow was good and he has debating skills that have been well-honed over a long number of years.

"Years on the opposition benches have helped him as he has time to consider his arguments.

"I'd say that Micheál has been doing debate practice over the last six months where his handlers would have been throwing horrible stuff at him and he has trained himself how to deflect. This shows and he is more polished as a result.

"He was holding his pen in his hand. The implications are that he was furiously taking notes rather than reading out pre-prepared answers.

"All leaders are trained to speak over each other. They are used to it in the Dáil where it is designed to put opponents off. With all the mikes open you get babble that nobody can make sense of. They know this is an effective technique of blurring the opponents' message.

"It irritates when it happens to them but they are happy to do it to others. Mr Martin did a lot of this last night. Stephen Donnelly and Richard Boyd Barrett did not do it as much as they have not been trained to do it."


Gerry Adams, Sinn Féin 

On the Sinn Féin leader, Mr Manahan said: "He does the cutting hands where the two hands move together up and down. He does this to emphasise his point. It's like he puts a full stop at the end of each word.

"It's like he is beating out a rhythm for himself. It is not that effective as it is visually distracting. I suspect what is going on here is fatigue.

"There was a real intensity about a couple of his responses to the coalition partners. He scored a lot of points by diminishing the gravitas of the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Fianna Fáil leader by putting them into the club called 'the Three Amigos' and this made us take them less seriously. This inspired warmth from the audience.

"It was Gerry Adams, Stephen Donnelly and Richard Boyd Barrett that got all the applause breaks.

"'Citizens with rights or subjects without rights' is a powerful mantra he uses. There was a hushed moment after he said that and the phrase about 'a real republic' got a similar reaction. He is inviting people to think big and differently by repeating this."


Lucinda Creighton, Renua

The body language expert observed that Lucinda Creighton "used the phrase a few times 'I make no apology'. She knew that the majority of middle-aged people would nod their heads and agree.

"Claire Byrne pulled a lot of the leaders up on pointing out the problems but not the solutions.

"Lucinda was sound on empathy and pointing out the problems. There was no doubting her passion and commitment. Did she make a warm connection with the audience? I am not so sure.

"This was the first time that a lot of people had come across Renua and their philosophy. She was crispy, clear and concise and portrayed self belief and the party's idea but did they land enough punches? If this was her one moment in the sun, it didn't work.  

"She was good at staring straight down the camera lens and talking to the audience and bringing the debate back to the person in the audience who asked the question. Perhaps her ideas are too big to be explained incredibly short sound-bites in a TV debate."


Richard Boyd Barrett, Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit 

On Richard Boyd Barrett, Mr Manahan said that "if you turned the sound down, he looked serious. He looked earnest. He looked like somebody talking with friends at a dinner party about something that he is not happy about.

"He was the most 'oh gosh, he speaks to me' leader. He is intelligent and articulate and he had a strong likeability even if he won't be in power.

"His body language was wider and more expansive and he reminded me of someone sitting in a relaxed social environment. He was the most unschooled speaker and the authenticity of that resonated. He could have had his shirt ironed but that is probably deliberate and contrived. For every one that works for, it alienates another."


Stephen Donnelly, Social Democrats

Finally, Mr Manahan had this to say about the Social Democrats leader: "Stephen Donnelly was very impressive and made a strong vocal point in introducing himself to the wider population that is not familiar with him by saying he is only in politics or five years. This provided a clear delineated line between him and the others.

"He is incredibly clear and very good at speaking to the audience in the room, rather than presuming a certain level of knowledge. He was strong in his clarity.

"He let his responses bring the debate back to the person that had asked the question. This came across as humane. He gave lots of eye contact where he gives the viewer the impression that 'you are the only person in the room and I am talking to you right now with the little experience I have. Here are my thoughts and ideas'.

"When he was talking about the economy and the €12 billion fiscal space, he was good at drawing a ladder in the air with his hands. His body language will stay with people.

"It was like he had a PowerPoint without actually having a PowerPoint as he drew his graph with his hands in the air. A lifetime of having done this sort of thing stood to him. It is a very considered approach and it was very visually memorable."

Keywords: Leaders' Debate