Six lessons from the televised leadership debate

The five men hoping to be Prime Minister took part in a televised debate last night.

At times it proved to be a chaotic, unruly and somewhat painful hour.  

But is there anything media spokespeople can learn from this second TV debate in the race for the Conservative crown?

We have identified six media training lessons.


Ignoring questions

This TV debate was far from being the first example of politicians ignoring the question that has been asked and responding to something completely different altogether.

But it is hard to remember a time when so many questions were ignored in such a relatively short period of time.

The format of the programme saw members of the public ask questions on issues including tax, Brexit, education, the environment and Islamophobia.

But rarely did the answer have any resemblance to what had been asked.

At one point presenter, turned referee, Emily Maitlis complained, “We seem to have strayed some way from the question.” On another occasion she asked “Can you hear me?” as Mr Johnson failed to respond to her questions.

On our media training courses, we tell delegates that they cannot evade or ignore questions on issues they do not want to talk about.  We stress it is vital that they at least address or, better still, answer the question they have been asked before moving on and trying to steer the conversation to more positive ground.

Social media posts from last night show just how frustrating the audience finds it when questions are ignored.  



Most of the hour-long programme was spent by the candidates simply talking over each other in what resembled more of a squabble than a debate.

That may have made from some entertaining viewing, but it also made it hard for messages to be heard.

And as the interruptions came from everyone taking part, it was hard to feel any real support for any of them.

On our media training courses, we advise spokespeople that panel discussions often lead to heated exchanges and that the key is to remain composed.

If you are the one doing the interrupting, the audience is likely to feel that you appear rude and aggressive.

A good presenter will try to ensure that everyone is given the same amount of time to give their views, so spokespeople should make sure they are ready to take advantage when their opportunity arrives.


Nightmare questions

On our media training courses we stress the importance of anticipating and preparing for those nightmare questions, the ones you really hope are not going to be asked.

Mr Johnson’s worst performance of the night came in response to questions he really should have anticipated – on Islamophobia and his handling of the Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe case.

These are issues which have already seen him criticised during this leadership contest, yet the rambling responses felt poorly thought out with claims that his words had been ‘exaggerated’ and ‘lifted’.

The apology offered after presenter Emily Maitlis reminded him of some of his provocative comments at best seemed half-hearted.  

He went on to suggest his comments about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe “didn’t make any difference” to the length of the sentence.


Less is sometimes more

Where were the memorable sound bites from last night’s debate? There are none that really spring to mind.

I would argue that this was because most of the answers were rambling, hard to follow and at times little more than lengthy rants.

Obviously, you don’t want to provide overly short answers, but responses of around 30 to 45 seconds would have been much easier to follow and helped to create more memorable messages.


Body language

Rory Stewart’s body language may well have reflected the mood of the watching public, but it also proved something of a distraction.

At times his head dropped forward in a kind of mourning pose and at others it was tilted backwards giving the appearance he was looking for some form of divine inspiration.

He also sat right on the edge of his stool throughout and rocked and shook his head while others debated.


It would be hard not to interpret his body language as displaying disdain towards the others taking part. But it also suggested at times that he was ill at ease, while the removal of his tie mid-debate - another distraction – could be seen that he was finding proceedings too hot to handle.

What is clear is that the social media conversation was dominated by his body language, suggesting people had switched off from what he was actually saying.




Having ducked an earlier leadership debate on Channel 4, where he was empty-chaired (a lesson in itself for anyone considering declining a media interview), all eyes were on front-runner Mr Johnson.

He produced a restrained, toned-down performance where the strategy seemed to be to simply avoid making any damaging gaffes – an aim he largely achieved. Although he did get in a dreadful muddle trying to remember Abdullah’s name in response to a question the Iman had posed about Islamophobia.



This was probably a sensible strategy considering Mr Johnson’s track record, but it is not one which should be adopted by other spokespeople.

They need to have an interview plan which is more ambitious than avoiding saying the wrong thing. They need to be clear on what they want those watching, listening or reading an interview to do and how they want them to feel.


And the debate winner?

Probably Erin, the 15-year-old girl from Glasgow, who asked the candidates whether they would commit to zero-carbon emissions by 2025.

Asked by the Ms Maitlis who had impressed her the most with their response, she replied: “Well to be honest, none of you have really impressed me in the way that I’m looking for."

I couldn’t sum it up any better than that.


Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.


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