'Body Language' and Words in Conflict. The impact of Candidates’ Verbal and Nonverbal Performance in Televised Debates on Viewers’ Short Term Perceptions
21 Pages Posted: 5 Nov 2014
Date Written: 2014
Televised debates by party leaders have an outstanding role within an electoral campaign. Televised debates are highly visible events and are attracting a large audience as well as prominent media coverage. Austrian parliamentary elections are a particularly interesting case to study, as ORF, the public broadcaster and market leader, arranges pairwise debates among all leaders of parties represented in parliament. While debates in other countries apply strict rules and a narrow Q&A format not allowing much discussion, the events in Austria are characterized by an open format, where one moderator only takes a limited role and candidates have an ample opportunity to shape the proceedings. During the 2013 electoral campaign ORF has broadcast 15 televised debates of at least 45 minutes, about the same number of debates have been arranged by private networks. Given their high profile and their persistence during several weeks of high intensity campaigning, debates provide the perhaps most influential direct channel of communication between candidates and citizens.
Our research is based on the hypothesis that viewers’ perceptions of the candidates are not only a matter of things being said but also on the way how they are said, i.e. nonverbal behaviour is assumed to have an impact on viewers’ judgements. In the run-up to televised debates candidates run through intense coaching. They are trained in their argumentative strategy, their rhetorical skills and also in their gestural behaviour. However, our assumption is that the verbal behaviour is mainly intentional and more or less controlled, while an individual’s nonverbal behaviour is determined by things less conscious (Bente et al. 2008; Bucy und Grabe 2008).
The focus of this paper is on the relationship between verbal and nonverbal behaviour. We draw on methods developed by psychologists to analyse face-to-face communication. This can be justified by the fact that the brain processes face-to-face situations in a very similar way as it does televised forms of communication in a talking-heads format like the one used during televised debates (Bucy/Grabe 2008). Both types of messages, verbal and nonverbal, are important to the success of the communication (Richmond 2010). We hypothesize that a discrepancy between verbal and nonverbal behaviour can cause negative effects on a viewer’s perception of the candidates (Grebelsky-Lichtman 2010, Penning 2007). The inconsistency causes a longer period of processing the message and, in this case, the importance of the visual channel rises (DePaulo 1978).
This research is based on the analysis of three debates broadcast during the 2013 parliamentary election campaign in Austria. Transcripts of the spoken word have been content analysed using a codebook, which identifies issues, arguments and rhetorical strategies. As to the nonverbal content we analyse gestures, face and body movements using FACS for facial movements and the BAP-Coding System for body movements (Dael et al. 2012 Ekman et al. 2002; Boersma und Weenink 2013). By continuously monitoring real time responses of participants in two focus groups we identify patterns of nonverbal/verbal behaviour that trigger changes viewers’ perceptions.
Keywords: election campaign, televised debates, nandidates, nonverbal behavior
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