What Managers Can Learn From UK TV Election Debates

As managers we can be grateful that we do not have to pitch for our jobs on prime time television, live, against all our rivals.

It is just possible to feel a twinge of sympathy for politicians as they go through the hell of four and half hours of live interview in front of millions of voters.

For each of the debates, I have found myself without a television. So I have had to go back to the 1950s and huddle around the wireless and listen to the Home Service radio broadcast of the event. And it has been a revelation. The impressions gained over the radio are dramatically different from the television verdict. Put simply:

  • Gordon Brown has sounded like a confident bully
  • David Cameron has sounded smarmy and evasive
  • Nick Clegg has sounded bland and harmless
It is not at all clear who would have won if it had been a radio contest, not a television contest. It appears we may be voting based on what we see, not on what we hear.

Even after the radio debates, I would be hard pushed to recall much of the substance although I have a strong impression of what they each sounded like: tone-of-voice trumped the words

This pretty much confirms most of the research on how we form our opinions. The landmark piece of research was by Professor Mehrabian of UCLA. His much quoted statistics about how we form impressions are:

  • What they say (words) : 7%
  • How they say it (tone of voice): 38%
  • How they look (facial appearance, body language, dress): 55%
If this is true, the election debates really are a beauty contest: we vote for who looks best. No wonder Brown comes a distant third: he has a very good face for radio.

All of this is known in academic circles as a BFO: a Blinding Flash of the Obvious. The problem is that the truth can be more blinding than obvious. In George Orwell's words "seeing what is in front of your nose takes great effort".

For managers, the implications are obvious but worth making anyway:

  • Dress the part -- given that dress rules vary dramatically by organisation and situation this is not as easy as it was in the days of bowler hats and the Home Service.
  • Act the part -- Each of the wannabe PMs have had extensive training on how to appear: where to look, how to stand and how to behave. To make it truly simple, I reduce it to the three E's: energy, enthusiasm and expertise. If you are not energetic and enthusiastic, no one else will be for you. And if you do not have some expertise, you probably should not be there in the first place.
  • Sound the part -- be positive and professional. Avoid gabbling, being negative or spreading blame and attacking others. Focus on action and the future.
Of course, it helps to have some substance as well. Next Thursday, switch off the TV and tune into the radio. It may be a revelation.

(Pic: dustpuppy cc2.0)