General Election 2017 Leaders’ Debates: How to see through body language training

How to spot what actions and phrases are trained into the Number 10 hopefuls – and when they're actually telling the truth

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Anybody who’s been caught up on the “strong and stable” verbal merry-go-round knows modern politicians undergo vigorous training to repeat the same winning phrases.

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Yet alongside these robotic soundbites, there’s something more interesting afoot: the main players in the 2017 General Election TV debates are also drilled in body language techniques designed to influence your opinion of them – whether you like it or not.

“Body language influences us in a very primal fashion,” says Dr Peter Collett, Oxford University psychologist. “It can affect people in an unconscious way and it can be trained. It’ll impact you in a way you won’t understand.”

The ITV Leaders Debate: everything you need to know

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So far, so scary. However, you don’t have to be a professional body language translator to know when somebody is broadcasting fake moves. Here’s our guide to spotting what hand gestures, facial ticks and feet signals are real, and what’s an act.

How to spot a fake hand gesture

Here’s a pointer to have at your fingertips: most politicians are trained to ‘purse’ their fingers together while speaking, sticking their thumb against their index and middle finger. “Try talking like that and it shouldn’t feel natural at all – but today’s politicians have all been taught that,” says Dr. Harry Witchel from Brighton and Sussex Medical School. 

Why use it if it’s so uncomfortable? “It prevents the use of a single finger in a dagger movement, or moving your hand flat like an axe. Both can be interpreted as aggressive gestures by viewers,” explains Witchel. “But the purse movement isn’t hostile. It’s simply beating time, a holding ‘baton’.” 

Enter Ed Miliband. The MP was a prime culprit of this move when he was Labour leader. Here’s the man himself during a conference speech in 2014…

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And here’s Ed’s extremely-not-at-all-noticeable gesturing during the 2015 Leaders’ debate…

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But even if a politician doesn’t rock up to the debate with their purse in tow, you can spot a prepared movement with another rule of thumb. “If somebody is being genuine then their hand movements are likely to precede the words. The brain tells the hands to move before you can articulate,” explains Collett. “If their hand movement comes afterwards then that’s dodgy.”

Everything you need to know about the General Election TV debates and interviews

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Indeed, there’s only so much hand-holding the media trainers can give their politician; come showtime they’ll be giveaways to what each potential PM might be thinking, something psychologists call ‘leakages’. And a main leakage of the night (apart from sweating) will be how hands punctuate speech.

For example, if a politician is listing a series of promises, their hands will only move at the points they’re really serious about. If they’re motionless at any point then you’ll have reason to be suspicious, says Collett: “You always have to ask if the hands tell the same story as the voice.”

How to tell if a politician is lying

The most important thing to bear in mind is that a singular body movement doesn’t expose a liar. “There are a lot of myths about lying and body language,” explains Collett. “The stuff about looking down to the left or right is rubbish. It’s not been confirmed at all.” 

Instead, look for what Witchel calls a ‘cluster’: “If somebody makes the same movements over and over, which all are quite suspicious and happen in short succession, that may mean that something weird is going on.” 

These suspicious signals include:

  • Tiny hand movements to the nose – this indicates somebody isn’t comfortable with what’s just been said
  • Covering the mouth with hand or tongue – “The implication is that they don’t want to say something or they shouldn’t have said something,” says Witchel
  • A voice going up so high it cracks – “Theresa May does this from time to time,” Witchel points out.

However, somebody displaying this behaviour isn’t necessarily lying; it’s just that they’re just uncomfortable with what’s been said. This is called incongruous behaviour – what happens when the physical movements don’t correspond with speech.

Exhibit A: Jeremy Corbyn’s recent speech to launch the Labour manifesto. “Look at when he’s talking about the triple lock on pensioner incomes,” says Witchel. “It’s something that looks like he lost the argument on. Maybe somebody else convinced him to maintain the triple lock.

“The reason I think you can tell that is in a five second period he stuck his tongue out twice and performed a little bit of a nose tweak. That’s a cluster. And it doesn’t mean he won’t deliver the triple lock. It just means he doesn’t like it.”

Here’s the moment in gif…

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And you can see the full video at the 23.10 mark at the video below…

How to spot when somebody launches into a pre-prepared speech

Politicians will turn up to an interview with a well-prepared paragraph or a few strong and stable soundbite-friendly phrases. Everyone knows it. But apart from sheer repetition, there is a way to identify when speech is rehearsed and when somebody is speaking frankly and off the cuff: their breathing, or lack thereof.

“Within normal conversation, people naturally take pauses and look away to formulate what they’re saying and how it fits in with what others may say. If it looks like somebody isn’t stopping for breath then their speech could be rehearsed,” explains Witchel.

A classic example of this is George Osborne in 2015 giving the same answer to questions about the recession. He doesn’t pause mid-speech. At all.

Whereas the opposite can be seen in politicians that haven’t spent too much time thinking exactly what they want to put across, Donald Trump being the key example here.

How to tell when somebody is nervous

If you’re not sure a candidate is sweating under a particularly hot studio light or they’re just plain terrified then pay close attention to the wide shots. That’s when you’ll get a glimpse of the all-important feet behind the podium.

“The feet are normally the one place people aren’t media trained,” explains Witchel. “When people are speaking, they have much more access in their mind to what their face and hands are doing – the feet will tell you a lot about their intentions.

“If they’re pointed towards an exit then that means they want to leave or want to end the situation. If they lift one foot off the ground it means they’re feeling awkward or unusual. And if you’ve got a foot angled directly at somebody, that indicates you’re comfortable to engage with them.”

And what do you do if you’re feeling super confident and want to show it? “Do a Nick Clegg and put your hands in your pockets.”

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But under no circumstances should you attempt that Farage smile.

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The ITV Leaders’ Debate is on ITV at 8pm Thursday 18th May