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Presentation tips from potential Prime Ministers

Updated: Sep 24, 2020

Last night two women went head to head in the Leader's Debate, one of many set pieces of a modern election campaign.

Political analysis of the debate is all over the internet, mostly concurring it was a pretty dull show with no clear winner or loser. For an unquestionable loss, look at the 'You're no Jack Kennedy' moment from Dan Quayle's 1988 vice-presidential debate with Lloyd Bentsen. (Thanks to Hilary for the tip.)

You may not have learned anything new about New Zealand's potential Prime Ministers from the debate last night, but we can learn from them as presenters. Labour leader Jacinda Ardern and National leader Judith Collins both have lots of experience. How did they go against the advice we give in our presentation skills workshops?

Who was the audience?

Know your audience is always step one of preparation. But a televised debate without a studio audience is tricky: they were aiming for the big invisible audience at home without the benefit of real time feedback on whether they were connecting.

Both women played it safe, pitching their delivery to activate existing supporters rather than breaking new ground. This was evident in discussion about the agricultural sector, where Judith Collins claimed farmers as an audience. She connected herself to them as a child of farmers and as someone who empathised with their current challenges. Jacinda Ardern failed to capitalise on the 'team of five million' who seemed an obvious audience for her to address.

auditorium with empty chairs
Presenting to an unseen audience is a challenge. Photo by ål nik on Unsplash

What were the key messages?

Neither woman nailed a big takeaway message, which is surprising given they both have party slogans that would have served well.

Jacinda Ardern gave many nods to 'Let's keep moving', but could have used it better to drive her messaging. She used 'plan' as her key word, and it took the momentum out of the message.

And while Judith Collins did emphasise the 'more jobs' part of National's three-point slogan, she didn't manage to bring 'strong team' and 'better economy' together in a memorable way.

So a C+ on rational message.

For me, the emotional messages were more memorable. My take:

  • Judith Collins is a fighter—on-brand, a great point of connection with her supporters, and seen as an admirable quality.

  • Jacinda Ardern is an optimist—again, on-brand, engaging for some, but carries the risk being weaponised by those who do not support her.

(How am I doing on leaving the politics out? Maybe a C-.)

How did they use expressions?

Cartoonist Toby Morris has done the work for us in his How to draw series on The Spinoff. His tips on how to draw cartoons of politicians identify the key facial characteristics.

For Judith Collins, it's all about the eyebrows, with good support from a smirk. Her eyebrows are fluent in disbelief and cyncism. And she used these facial features well in the debate, drawing the camera to her responses while Jacinda Ardern was talking. Judith Collins is good at scoring a point without saying a word.

Jacinda Ardern's eyebrows also get a mention, with the warning that her teeth are a distraction. I'd say they could have been a welcome distraction last night, a counterpoint to the severe listening face that had too much screen time.

How did they use stance and gesture?

The studio format gave both women the gift of a podium—somewhere to put your hands! And notes if you need them.

Jacinda Ardern uses gesture to punctuate and emphasise her speech. Her gestures are well modulated, both inviting and emphatic. But her habit of weaving from foot to foot and swaying can be a distraction.

Judith Collins holds herself close, with minimal physical gestures and a firm stance. This works well to enhance the idea that she is solid and dependable, and is a a necessary balance to her facial gestures.

How did they use structure?

Every answer in a debate is a chance for a micro presentation and a new start. Put the train wreck of your last response behind you, and move on. If the event is recorded, your train wreck may come back to haunt you, but don't think about that in the moment. Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins both know this, and Collins put it into practice, leaving behind a diversion into avocados that might have derailed a less experienced presenter.

Jacinda Ardern used a layered structure in a couple of responses that meant we had to wait for the substance. This was not the time to demonstrate high rhetorical skills; this is a format that demands a simple structure to deliver key messages.

Judith Collins used simple, direct structures to good effect.

How did they use language?

Judith Collins made very deliberate use of 'Ms Ardern', presumably to avoid using 'Jacinda' and evoking the sense of familiarity Ardern's followers feel. But the technique drew attention to itself, leading the audience to wait for her to slip up, which she eventually did.

Collins got impact out of personal pronouns. Her most memorable answers included "I do what I do', 'I am', 'My husband.' These phrases preface micro stories that let the audience relate.

Jacinda Ardern favoured 'our' for people, environment, and economy. If she told personal stories, I don't remember them.

What I do remember is the phrase 'double duty'. This referred to initiatives from her government which are addressing more than one issue. It's a neat idea, but strays perilously close to being jargon. And was it a good idea to introduce a new phrase to a forum in which you are trying to reach a wide audience?

We've got a few more of these debates to watch before 17 October. Both leaders have something to offer for anyone who wants to improve their presentation skills. If you don't watch them for policy, watch them for tips on what could work for you. Or talk to us!


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