Why The Body Matters – Observations of David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg

Far too often, we assume that politicians’ most significant messages come through speech, however a multitude of ideas, intentions and emotions are ‘leaked’ through nonverbal communication. Two languages occur at once – one silent and one spoken and it is imperative that we pick up on both. To understand nonverbal communication is not to ignore verbal communication; it is to listen to the verbal and then look deeper to understand the nonverbal.

This blog has been written after analysing the use of proxemics (space), kinesics (body movement) and gestures by the three political leaders, using the BBC Leaders’ Debate on 29 April 2010 as a case study. This is solely my personal interpretation of their nonverbal communication and it is not influenced by others’ opinions.

Proxemics is a term that was first used by anthropologist Edward T Hall in 1966 and refers to a person’s use of space in relation to objects and others around them. The use of space is crucial as it portrays numerous imperative messages such as territory marking, control, command, threat, intimacy and rejection.

If we consider the three politicians’ positions in relation to the lecterns (when the wide shot enabled us to see the full bodies of the politicians), David Cameron used space effectively by frequently standing with his legs splayed apart in a wide stance. The larger one’s personal use of space, the larger one’s implied confidence and power. Similarly, Nick Clegg adopted a wide stance throughout the debate, showing his equally dominant approach. The only weak leader in terms of proxemics was Gordon Brown, who frequently stood with his feet close together and his arms crossed in front of his lower torso. His diminutive use of space indicated his lack of confidence in his message and little dominance over territory in relation to the other two leaders.

As well as maintaining a wide stance, the use of space through arm movements and even finger space can represent an acquisition of power. Nick Clegg excelled in his use of space, from the way he extended his arms as wide as possible, to the subtle way he spread his fingers when speaking, in order to claim just that little bit more territory and thus show gestures of power.

David Cameron similarly spread his fingers widely when making a point, so portrayed himself very confidently. Certain phrases were backed up by his wide finger gestures such as: “We are cutting taxes”. However, at this point, I feel it is important to mention that I believe Nick Clegg may have had a slight advantage in the debate (possibly due to his height and position on the stage) because his full torso was more visible (and therefore his arm gestures) much more frequently than the other two candidates. More often than not, it was clear through shoulder movements that David Cameron was gesticulating; however the tight shot of the camera meant we could not always see his arms.

As for Gordon Brown, he rarely used the ‘widespread’ finger gestures like Clegg and Cameron, and instead it was clear he had been ‘trained’ to use ‘power gestures’ but he did not pull these off successfully.

The ‘steepling gesture’ is a well-known power gesture, which consists of fingers being straight out and fingertips touching. Gordon Brown seemed to adopt this gesture sporadically, but in my opinion he didn’t really pull it off for two reasons:

1) It was a gesture that suddenly appeared somewhat randomly (for example, not in relation to emphasising a strong argument). It was almost as if he had sporadically remembered to use this gesture so quickly adopted the hand position he had been taught, when that came to mind.
2) When using this gesture, it either collapsed quickly or he held it very low behind the lectern and it pointed south, indicating negativity and a lack of confidence.

Another powerful gesture is the clenched fist with straight thumb that has been nicknamed the ‘Clinton Thumb’ after Bill Clinton’s idiosyncratic use of it in 1993. The extension of the thumb is less threatening than a clenched fist, and less aggressive than pointing a finger, so it has been adopted as an optimistic, positive gesture by politicians. Gordon Brown adopted this gesture on a number of occasions; however, like his steepling gesture, he often kept his hands very low, so did not appear convincing. Both Nick Clegg and David Cameron used the ‘Clinton Thumb’ in a very effective and convincing manner throughout their speeches.


Eye contact is essential when making a point or trying to engage another person. A massive mistake that Gordon Brown made in this debate was his inability to maintain a constant, confident gaze. The seated audience at the venue was in its hundreds, but the televised audience was in its millions, so therefore, his focus should have been on the majority – at the camera, thus building a relationship with the viewers at home. Instead, his eyes were constantly shifting with no focus, and this distanced him from the audience even more and made him appear to be scatty, and to have forgotten about the audience.

In contrast with this, David Cameron was clearly well media trained and focussed directly on the camera. He presented every point directly into the camera, engaging strongly with those at home. He rarely looked away to the seated audience at the venue and instead realised his focus should be with the majority.

Nick Clegg kept his focus on the televised audience by presenting to the camera for the majority of the time, though he tried to balance his attention and win over the seated audience at the venue by involving them on a personal level.



Overall, Nick Clegg’s body language was very strong and convincing and he had evidently been very well trained. His use of space indicated his authority and his large domination of territory showed he was not intimidated by the other two leaders.
His approach to the debate consisted of contrasting himself with the ‘other two’ leaders, and he frequently tried to tar them both with the same brush. He uttered phrases such as: “…neither David Cameron nor Gordon Brown knows how to do that…” and “…you can pretend as much as you like…David Cameron and Gordon Brown”. His gestures also successfully backed up his criticisms of the other two leaders. For example, when stating: “…the way they got us into this mess”, he spread his arms out and made hand gestures to the left and right. Similarly, when discussing problems, he frequently directed his arms to the left and right, in order to subconsciously make the audience associate problems with the other two leaders.

With regards to subconscious messages, it was clear that Nick Clegg was highly trained to use his words and gestures in unison, in a way that influenced the audience. In addition to the example of pointing to other candidates when discussing problems, I also believe he may have implemented a few subliminal messages through his intonation. For example, he used phrases such as: …”that’s what I think we need to DO to make taxes FAIRER.” The emphasis on three particular words spelt out the subliminal message, “I DO FAIRER.”

Additionally, back to the point of distancing himself from the other two leaders, he used his speech to create an image of ‘us’ and ‘them’. ‘Us’ being himself and the audience (televised and seated) and ‘them’ being the other two candidates. Phrases such as “…here they go again” were used to distance himself from the other two leaders. “We should be a world leader in manufacturing these wind turbines” was a phrase he used to group himself with the audience. Another regular technique he used to build rapport was constantly referring to audience member names, for example saying: “I strongly agree with you Jean”. Other positive gestures Clegg used were: a pinching gesture to emphasize points; hands lifted high with palms downwards in order to emphasise authority and also many widespread gestures to show his dominance and acquisition of territory.

As mentioned previously, camera framing meant we ‘lost’ some of the gestures Cameron was making, so therefore missed out on important body language. However, his stance was wide, and his acquisition of territory was very successful. He used the ‘Clinton thumb’ frequently and convincingly, and when we couldn’t see his hands, he nodded his head in order to emphasize particularly strong points.

His presentation was convincing due to his concentrated focus on the camera and his subtle, occasional injection of humour built a rapport with the audience. He was not afraid to be frank, for example stating about Gordon Brown: “…what you’re hearing is very desperate stuff, from someone who is in a very desperate state.”
The only way he may have improved is by adopting the same strategy with gestures relating to spoken word that Nick Clegg used. For example, when he stated: “…these other two parties….” there was a lack of gesture in their direction in order to reinforce the point.


It really did all go wrong for Gordon Brown. He had obviously been advised on his body language and the gestures he should use, however his execution of these gestures was highly unconvincing. When he finished speaking, his arms often crossed over his body – which is a protective gesture, and showed a lack of confidence. An overall feeling of discomfort was brought across by Brown – whether through his shifting gaze, nervous jaw drop between sentences or brow rubbing in order to pacify himself. When we experience discomfort, the limbic brain leaks this through body language – and certain gestures called ‘pacifying gestures’ are used to calm a person down.

In his closing statement he remarked, “I want to thank everyone who has been involved”, however he immediately looked down after saying this, making this seem insincere (even though he may just have been checking up on his notes).
Brown showed evident discomfort when the other two leaders criticised him…for example he frequently shook his head or pointed with his finger, showing his desire to interrupt. Additionally, his palms faced upwards when others spoke, which came across as a pleading gesture and emphasised his desperation. Consistently looking down after speaking and being unable to keep a direct gaze suggested he did not have confidence in what he was saying. Also, his contracted body and lack of a wide use of space suggested inhibitions and a lack of confidence.

Overall, Gordon Brown was the clear loser of this debate given his lack of self-assurance which was highly evident through his body language. The battle was extremely close between Nick Clegg and David Cameron, however I feel David Cameron was the winner because he seemed that bit more genuine and unrehearsed than Nick Clegg. The battle was so close between them due to their competitive power fight through use of space and dominant gestures. Nick Clegg seemed to have learnt ‘tricks’ of how to get on the right side of the audience through repetition, subliminal messaging, associating opposition with negative points/gestures, grouping himself with the audience, using power gestures, large territory and constantly referring to audience members by name in order to balance his attention between studio and home. However, there comes a time when being ‘too rehearsed’ can become dangerous and make one appear almost robotic. Nick Clegg runs the risk of becoming a leader who is simply a predictive visual display of win-win presentation tricks and people may start to question whether there is ‘real’ Clegg underneath the ‘media machine’.

© 2010 Alicia Drewnicki