CBC News Federal Election


Analysis & Commentary

Building a better politician

By Carolyn Ryan
Winston Churchill spoke with a lisp, and rehearsed for hours before important speeches. John F. Kennedy's hands visibly shook during early public appearances.

Former British prime minister Winston Churchill, who spoke with a lisp and stuttered as a young man, practised his way into political-speech history. (AP Photo)
Effective politicians aren't necessarily born that way.

"There are very, very few people who have been objectively good over the last 100 years," said Toronto consultant Allan Bonner, citing former American president Bill Clinton as one possible exception.

High-profile makeovers grab the headlines when it comes to the work of media trainers. Remember former Reform party leader Preston Manning's sudden transformation from earnest country preacher to well-groomed wearer of sleek suits, complete with contact lenses?

But consultants interviewed by CBC.ca say most of their job involves teaching politicians how to get their message across, with little time devoted to how to pick out clothes or arrange their hair.

"I don't think we spend more than three per cent of the time dealing with that �," said Bonner. "The thing that we spend time on is 'Oh my God, what if they ask about X?'"

The former CBC journalist has trained eight Canadian premiers and "maybe another eight or so party leaders" over the years, charging $600 an hour for the service.

"You have to be a polished version of yourself, the best version of yourself, just like when you're going to a job interview," he said.

And that's so important that about 85 per cent of Canadian politicians opt for some sort of media training, Bonner said.

Learning to avoid 'classic mistakes'

Bernard Gauthier, who works with Delta Media in Ottawa, has delivered media training to scores of politicians first arriving on Parliament Hill. Many of them return later for refresher courses in how to survive question period, handle themselves in tough interviews, and give speeches.

"My experience is that most of them come in knowing that this is a tough thing to do," Gauthier said.

Delta charges up to $10,000 for an intensive one-day course for groups of about six people. One-on-one sessions are also available using a combination of techniques, including videotaping mock interviews for review later.

"Classic mistakes will be the way they move their body, shifting the eyes, and also people who just clearly aren't prepared. They're stumbling for words," said Gauthier.

Politicians often need help to balance their public image by emphasizing qualities voters don't associate with them, said Bonner.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper wore a black leather vest to the Calgary Stampede this summer, where he flipped pancakes. (CP Photo)
"If a person is perceived to lack caring and empathy, such as [Conservative Leader] Stephen Harper, you go to that weakness and establish your bona fides there," he said.

Bonner can't understand why advisors trying to stress Harper's humanity during this summer's Calgary Stampede would have let him be photographed wearing a cowboy hat and ill-fitting leather vest.

"The problem with Harper having dabbled with the wardrobe approach in the battle for our hearts and mind is that he's seen as having so little substance that he has to go to the closet to get his message across," Bonner said.

Rule 1: Remove distractions

That said, there are things politicians can do to refine their wardrobe approach, Gauthier and Bonner agree.

"Anything you do that is a distraction is not good. There is a fine line between attracting attention and distracting attention," said Bonner. "The general rule is that you dress one up from the audience. It's for practical purposes �. If you're in a short skirt, you can't climb all over the Hibernia oilrig."

Gauthier said female politicians should beware jangling jewelry whenever they could encounter a sensitive microphone. Men have to avoid "ties that vibrate on television, or bad colours that don't go well with their complexions."

Eyewear poses its own problems. Glasses that cast reflections under TV lights are a no-no, and "if someone has Coke-bottle glasses, the reality is that the side of their head will look caved in," said Bonner.

Hats are difficult, too, said Gauthier. "They're right next to your face and the face is the most expressive part of the human body. So there's this thing on top and you can't help looking at it."

Hair has to be neat and clean, but Bonner balks at talk of a politically palatable do.

"Here's where image gets carried away," he said. "So many American senators and congressman have the same hair. That's somebody's impression of what a politician should look like �. It is unreal how many of them look like Stepford husbands."

Both consultants lean toward advising clients to alter their appearance gradually, if at all.

"I don't want to draw attention to the change," said Gauthier. "I want to draw attention to the person."

The kind of "polishing" that some call superficial or even dishonest is just a matter of improving someone's odds in a competitive world, Bonner added.

"Whether you had a loud voice was important in ancient Rome," he pointed out, and the ability to give hour-and-a-half stump speeches prevailed in American races 100 years ago.

"People expect their leaders to be a little more special than they are," he added. "Not a lot, because it's a democracy.

Preston Manning's sudden makeover in 1997 led to mockery from the media. "He's still a geek," said an Ottawa Citizen writer. "He�s just a geek with a better haircut." (CP File Photos)


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