Fully despatched

Bladonmore’s coaching team analyse the performances of Cameron and Corbyn as they do battle at PMQs.

It’s the weekly set piece of British politics – Prime Minister’s Questions. Today’s, however, was a little different; David Cameron’s last and Jeremy Corbyn’s first since the Labour executive assured him a place on the leadership ballot. As they stood at their respective despatch boxes, our media and presentation coaches unpick the style and substance of this final engagement.

Ben Shore on Cameron: telling stories, scripting jokes, prompting emotion

The performance of a Prime Minister at the despatch box crystallises the paradox of public speaking. Taken on face value how a Prime Minister speaks should be much less important than what they say.

But Prime Ministers trade on who they are, on their personal brand. In this respect Prime Minister’s Questions is more about style than content – and the style section is dealt with below by Sandra Davis.

During David Cameron’s last performance at PMQs we saw a version of him that was confident, warm, often amusing while also alert enough to manage hostility.

He benefited from the Parliamentary convention of his opponents mentioning issues over which they agreed. Jeremy Corbyn offered gay marriage, even Angus Robertson from the SNP mentioned Srebrenica.

If two people find common ground, it has an emotional effect on the audience, conveying a sense of reasonableness and goodwill – even where none may exist.

And Cameron had prepared well.

Doing humour is so difficult on the stump but he had his lines written long before he entered the Commons: telling Corbyn he was like the Black Knight from Monty Python, or recalling an anecdote of an American believing PMQs was “his show”.

In these two small jokes we can see Cameron leveraging the power of story and analogy.

But there were moments when the normal conventions of PMQs muted the sense of fun and solidarity. SNP MPs pushed Cameron on whether discussions had taken place on Scotland’s status post the EU referendum. Cameron responded by talking up the Scottish economy. He didn’t answer the question and the sense of a nation and union divided intervened upon the occasion.

But the most poignant moment and the only one when it appeared Cameron might cry was when he quoted himself at his first PMQs against Tony Blair: “I was the future once”. The clever re-phrasing, the self-deprecating tone and the brevity of the message allowed him to coalesce the melancholy of departure and the disorder of current politics into just five words.

Sandra Davis on Cameron’s style: How Cameron drives his message home

When David Cameron approaches the dispatch box he can never know exactly what is going to be thrown at him – or can he?

As Ben references above, much of what he says is prepared, and he will practice not only what he says, but how he says it. He knows it’s important, because we take as much meaning from what we see as what we hear.

So, how did he make his answers hit home?

Appropriate facial expression: At all times his facial expression matches his message. If he is talking about something serious such as cancer drugs, he furrows his brow and looks concerned. If the subject matter is more light-hearted, such as whether to take on the Top Gear anchor role, then he not only smiled, but showed his smile off by looking around the room.

Highlighting key words – he does this in three ways:

  • He says them a little slower
  • He says them a little louder
  • He uses gesture to punctuate them even further either with an open handed emphatic cut or a fisted punch.

The power of repetition: repeating key words or phrases when talking draws our attention to them and gives them greater importance. When talking about his economic achievements he repeatedly used “This government…” first at the beginning of each achievement, and then as a sign-off for the last achievement.

Upping the energy: his energy levels are higher than for conversational speech, keeping the focus on him, commanding the attention of the crowd until he finished.

Varying his speech rate: Slowing down acts like a verbal highlighter, and can add gravitas to the message. This was particularly noticeable in his slow delivery of his very last answer – the last words he will say, in fact, in the Houses of Parliament as Prime Minister.

Matt Guarente on Corbyn: Doing his bit, but not a day for a battle

It was a knockabout session. Like the last day of school where there are no real lessons, the teachers are demob happy and the kids a little giddy, the last PMQs of the Cameron era – and the penultimate before the summer break – was a fractious, noisy, jokey affair. There was even a version of prizegiving – in the form of tributes to the Headmaster – before some rather more serious questions about terrorism, Brexit and Kurdish casualties.

It was five minutes in before Jeremy Corbyn got to speak. He received a boisterous cheer. It may have been boos – it was hard to discern, but the noise anyway a tribute to Corbyn’s ability to escape political death just a few hours previously by managing to get onto the Labour leadership ballot.

Corbyn’s style is calm and deliberate. He rarely raises his voice; he trusts in rhetoric, wants to be seen as plausible and measured and right. Cameron wins by emotion, by bravura, by bullying jokes.

Ultimately, Corbyn let Cameron have his day. The debate was pretty meagre; going back to the end-of-school analogy it was like the Geography master insisting upon a test on European capitals, and giving up after Belgium.

On a better note, Corbyn displayed considerable emotional intelligence wishing the best for Cameron’s family; how could any side of the divide think worse of him after that?

Politicians lose the interest of the common observer when they try and out-fact each other in a game of issues ping-pong. One served up homelessness, the other returned housebuilding. The economy was countered by first-time buyers’ woes, followed by half a dozen other subjects – all without any real points being scored.

And the best piece of communication was a story.

Corbyn pulled out one of his favourite set-pieces: “I’ve had an e-mail from Nina…” (Groans from the throng).

He continued, highlighting her plight, telling her tale: Nina is concerned about citizenship rights post-EU that she will be forced to re-locate. Immediately, the personal and real narrative forced Cameron into a different gear; composed, serious, plausible and concerned.

It’s what teachers have known for a long, long time: when the class is fractious and tired after a long term, what calms them all down and gets their attention is a good, engaging story.

Matt Guarente, Sandra Davis and Ben Shore are part of the in-house training faculty at Bladonmore, specialising in coaching senior people to communicate effectively when it matters most.

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