Decoding debate body language: Expert breaks down party leaders' non-verbal cues
TORONTO -- The six federal election candidates took the stage for the English-language debate in Gatineau, Que., on Monday, and while the message of each candidate was weighed and measured by Canadians, another, more subtle factor was at play – body language.
“Body language is essential,” said Tracey Thomson, a body language expert and chief operating officer and co-founder of TRUTHPLANE, a company dedicated to training business leaders how to project confidence and credibility. “If you can control your body language, you can control your story.”
Thomson took part in CTV News’s live blog during the debate, offering insight into each candidate’s body language and delivery of their major talking points.
Thomson told CTVNews.ca that while watching Liberal leader Trudeau, it was clear he is “very direct, very practiced, polished and confident,” and that his delivery “direct to camera” denotes his ease being in spotlight.
However, Thomson says there were a few moments that showed the other candidates got under his skin.
“When he was taking questions or under attack, he turned his body in a defensive mode,” Thomson said in a telephone interview after the debate wrapped up. “He kept his arm down on the podium when Scheer was going after him almost like a buffer.”
“His back gets very straight when he gets attacked, it’s almost like he braces himself but in a very upright manner,” she said.
Thomson also noted that Trudeau wore a very “sombre” dark suit and tie that seemed to be an effort to show how “serious” the leader took the debate.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer had the stand-out performance of the evening for Thomson. She said his “strong statement” of turning his entire body towards Trudeau when asking him a question was a way of being “vulnerable…saying ‘I am here as the Canadian every man, asking a question,’ in a very direct manner.”
Thomson said that Scheer kept a handle on the “smirk” that had branded him as acting smug in the past, and that his symmetrical, central gestures made him appear that he was “controlled and calm.”
“(Former Conservative Leader and Prime Minister Stephen) Harper actually did the same thing before him, the gestures that tell people ‘I can be trusted,’” said Thomson, adding that the only time Scheer appeared rattled was when Trudeau attacked him on his anti-abortion stance.
The Green Party leader comes off “incredibly intelligent and passionate,” Thomson said, noting that May appears to “speak from the heart” and gestures with her hands frequently.
“She’s the only woman up there, and her body language and delivery shows a refusal to back down and be apologetic,” Thomson said. “She looks like she thinks she knows best, and for some people that may be a turn-off.”
Thomson said that May’s habit of speaking with a raised chin may come across as “arrogant,” while her side-to-side hand gestures could appear as “grandstanding” and “dogmatic.”
Thomson said that the NDP leader came across “incredibly likable” in Monday’s debate, delivering his points in a “sincere, passionate manner.”
“[Singh] gestures and lifts with his hands, like he is telling his story with them,” Thomson said.
Singh was also “very good” at the “open, vulnerable and direct look into the camera,” that emphasized his major points, she said. A key aspect of pulling this off was Singh being “very still when speaking to camera,” that projects sincerity and confidence, Thomson said.
The Bloc Quebecois leader appeared “happy to have the platform” Thomson said, adding that Blanchet slowed his speech to make his points “with gravity, slowly, taking his time” so that his message registered with the audience.
“It’s about control, and keeping [his] thoughts clear and controlled as possible, showing that he deserves to be there,” Thomson said.
Blanchet’s pacing and habit of “nodding down” when he spoke tells the public “I have a right to be here… and I am serious and grounded,” Thomson said, adding that the leader did a good job of holding his ground.
For Thomson, the People’s Party of Canada leader performed the poorest of all the candidates in terms of his body language.
“He came across unfocused, looking from left to right…[he] seemed less polished and got rattled a lot,” Thomson said.
Bernier also used “down[ward] hand gestures” often, according to Thomson, which was an effort to “shush” the other candidates.
“His physicality came off as less controlled, more emotional and more aggressive,” Thomson said, adding that Bernier jutting his face forward seemed “angry and less centred.”
The candidates will face off again on Thursday for the official French-language debate.