Election Watch #5: Campaigning by Cue Card

I’m a theatre director, and in the past 45 years I’ve dealt with them all: from the most experienced professionals to the rankest amateurs. And there are a couple of points about performers that I think a lot of campaign chairmen and party leaders need to consider before they decide what kind of information they’re going to send their candidates out on the hustings with.
It mostly has to do with the ability to improvise. Now, I’m betting that a lot of politicians in this day and age are saying, “Oh, no. That’s the last thing you want.” And that’s not a good situation. It’s bad for your candidate, it’s bad for your party, the media hate it, and the voters aren’t interested. Here’s why.

Performing From Script
When you work with professionals, they often come to the first rehearsal with the script already memorized. You spend your time honing the emotional presentation, fine-tuning everything. You discuss the content of the script in great detail. If they will interact with the audience, you practice in that sort of situation. You end up with performers who know the material cold, can perform the script with powerful emotion and listen to the audience, varying the performance depending on crowd reaction.
Amateurs are a very different game. They show up knowing very little about the script. You work on getting them to memorize it. If there’s time, you explain what it means. Many of them are happy (and by that time, so are you) if they have their words memorized by opening night. So they can get through the script with whatever power their natural talent gives them, but heaven help them if a missed cue or a comment from the audience throws them off track.

The Solution
Let the actors influence the final script. Improvise it, discuss it, get to know the material. Then refine what they came up with to give the messages the performance requires. People who write their own lines remember them, speak them with more emotion, and are able to adapt as the performance requires.

Then There’s Politicians.
Very few politicians are seasoned professionals. Most of them have little performance experience, and few them were involved in the creation of the script. You’re sending them out on a national stage with very little preparation, and most will be unable to improvise.

The Solution?
Very simple. You condense your message down into a series of sound bites, write them up on cue cards, and exhort the performers (sorry, the candidates) never to stray from the script on pain of death. Or expulsion from the caucus. You impress upon them the dire consequences if they should make a mistake and say something “wrong” on national media. You threaten how the reporters will flay whatever’s left of them when the Party Leader gets finished.
As a result, you’re sending them out, not only poorly prepared, but scared to death as well. So when, as eventually happens, the interview or panel gets off the script, the candidates are too busy worrying about the state of their hides and haven’t got the experience or concentration to think for themselves and deal with the real question.
Witness Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, who couldn’t get off script in a fast-changing situation last week, and made such a fool of himself that he had to be yanked into the wings for a quick rehearsal. Witness the CBC reporter who got so frustrated at receiving the same pat non-answer to her question that she stated, “All right. If you’re going to duck the question, let’s just make that clear and move on.”

But Don’t Mix the Cards
And don’t let’s dump this all on the One-Man Show. The Liberals have a renowned improviser in Justin Trudeau. It’s a whole lot of his charm and aids a great deal in the honest emotion he portrays. But there is that other element about improvising that every actor must take into account; sometimes it goes wrong. In a free-flowing improv show, you can ride through it, recover your poise, and get the crowd back again. In a political campaign there are a hundred reporters and reps of the other parties scrutinizing every word you say in case they can spin it into a memorable sound bite. Witness, “the budget will balance itself.” No one remembers where it came from, no one knows the context it was wrenched out of, but it has come back to haunt Mr. Trudeau big time. So Justin is playing the good little actor and sticking to the script, and thus losing some of his fresh new appeal. Score one for the critics.
And even that falls down. In his interview with Peter Mansbridge, Trudeau started to answer something about income splitting, got lost halfway through, and ended up lauding the child tax benefit. There was a slight hesitation while he realized his mistake, but then he forged blindly on. The problem with cue cards is that you have to be looking at the right one when the question comes along.

The Mulcair Mob.
The NDP election platform is so far from their usual line of gab that nobody, including their Fearless Leader, dares step a centimeter off the script, because there’s nothing but…well, nothing…on either side.

Bo…o…oring
The result is an election campaign made up of scripted sound bites, which drives the entertainment-oriented media crazy. The style plays to the detriment of the Conservatives, because it’s hard to be entertaining when you’re being attacked and you have the defensive strategy of a tortoise. For example, when Peter Mansbridge asked Mr. Harper what he would change if he got back into office, his answer was, “Nothing.” This ain’t great when some surveys suggest that 75% of Canadians want change.
But I think the worst effect of this “hide-behind-the-teleprompter” style is that it alienates voters. There is no excitement, no entertainment value, nothing to grab them and say, “Get out and vote for this; it’s important!” Given this sort of campaign, party supporters will vote along party lines and everyone else will stay home. Great for democracy.

Appendix: What I Learned From the Interviews:

Tom Mulcair:
I had always thought from his Question Period performances that he was a great Leader of the Opposition, but his smugly self-righteous attitude was beginning to grate on me.
What did I learn?
– When he’s not being self-righteous and just trying to be nice, he’s just plain smug. Can’t bring myself to like the guy. Just like with Harper, I never saw anything behind the polite, positive, smiling cardboard cutout he presents to the camera.
– The NDP have backed off on the “50% + 1” requirement for a Quebec secession vote. Mulcair absolutely refused to speak those numbers, no matter how hard Mansbridge pushed. Nice try, Pete. You got your point across.

Stephen Harper:
His supporters will like this interview. He came across as pleasant, logical, and focused on the party line.
What did I learn?
– Absolutely nothing.
(Note from director to performer: about the “whatever the voters decide” line you finished with. Isn’t it a little early to be practicing your concession speech? Chin up, old boy. If it comes to a coalition government, at least you’ll get to be Leader of the Opposition.)

Justin Trudeau:
He started out with the same old sound bites, (I thought at one point if I heard “economic growth” and “what middle class Canadians are really concerned about” one more time I was going to need a coating of Zantac on the TV screen) but once the interview got rolling, he tossed the cue cards and started answering the questions, speaking to the interviewer and thus to the public.
What did I learn?
-Nice trick, separating himself from the most negative part of his father’s legacy of too much power at the PMO.
– A better idea of why he supported Bill C-51. I’m still skeptical, but at least he has a plan.
– Both Trudeau and Mulcair agree it’s the Liberals who aren’t interested in a coalition. I wonder what will happen when the chips are down and the only other choice is a Harper minority government.
– And finally, what I have been waiting to hear from any candidate in this election; when asked why he was the best leader for the country, he said, “Because I have a vision of what Canada was and can be again.”

People might even come out and buy a ticket to see someone like that.

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