TV leaders’ debates – the dos and don’ts, featuring Batman

Total Politics asked me to pen some words of advice to the party leaders ahead of tonight’s first TV debate. Here’s what I said:

Dear Party Leader,

The impact on campaigns of debates in other countries shows how your debate could be not only be historic but also campaign changing.

Lower expectations
The lower the expectations voters and journalists have of your debate performance before it takes place, the more likely you are to come out as triumphant. So follow the well worn tradition and get your PR people to invert their usual insistence to all and sundry that you are wonderful and instead talk up your likely difficulties in the debate.

Be ready for the worms
A staple part of televised debates in many other countries, particularly Australia and New Zealand, is the ‘worm’ – a line that wriggles up and down on screen showing the instant positive/negative reactions of an audience to what they are seeing in the debate. Although of questionable value, it makes the viewing more fun and frequently shapes the post-debate media coverage.

We may well see worms in the UK, especially as they are a way for broadcasters who are not hosting a debate to muscle in. For example, Channel 4 hasn’t been given a debate but could take the live feed which will be available in two of the three debates, add some ‘worms’ and steal some of the audience. [Update: looks like the worm will be a Facebook one.]

If there is one, remember what ‘worms’ like: they like it when popular figures are on screen, even if they’ve not yet spoken, but also they usually take a strong dislike to the raising of unpopular issues, mentions of unpopular colleagues and the sort of dead-bat, change the subject debate techniques that can get you through a TV interview intact. This is not a time for the clever-clever style of Oxford Union debates.

Pick your attacks with care
Although Stephen Harper failed to lead the Canadian Conservatives to victory in 2004, he did deprive the Liberals of an overall majority, helped by a strong TV debate performance. The mistake his opponents made was that, having been successfully attacking his party’s attempt to present a moderate reputation during the campaign, the same accusations were made direct to him during the debate. That allowed Harper to turn on the personal charm and conviction, responding directly to the charges and winning points for sincerity.

“Drunkard”, “useful idiot” and “dickheads” – all terms from one of the 2006 Italian debates between Prodi and Berlusconi – are best avoided, as is this quote from a 2004 Czech debate: “You’re lying as you always have. That’s you all over – a liar from beginning to end!” Debating on TV with other leaders is not the same as penning anonymous comments to a political blog.

Give a web address
Increasingly people watch TV on a computer or with a computer or smartphone to hand. As a result, the mention of a web address can drive huge volumes of traffic. The Lib Dem council tax campaign site keeled over under the surge of traffic after Charles Kennedy gave its address during a 2005 general election press conference. The debate will be a fantastic opportunity to get people to your website and signing up for emails or as friends/followers on social networks; don’t miss it.

And finally…
For a final bit of fun, look at this:

Perhaps best not to ape the Penguin’s arguments yourself… But the humour has a serious side: Batman’s po-faced response to the Penguin’s outrageous debate speech is a classic mistake of politicians, using cold, boring logic when emotion and anger are needed. Don’t make the same mistake!

Best of luck,


As for what I think will happen – see my ten TV leader debate predictions.

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