Kier Starmer, the Leader of the Labout party, was interviewed face-to-face on the Andrew Marr show this weekend. This was one of the first big face-to-face interviews Starmer has done in the last few weeks after COVID lockdown rules. Previous interviews were typically carried out online, at a distance.
Face-to-face interviewing brings with it its own advantages but also disadvantages. The interviewer (Marr in this case) is able to more easily challenge the interviewee’s reply and interrupt. Starmer however has developed some useful technqiues for preventing this and enabling him to hold the floor and thus present more of what he wants to say rather than what the press what to hear.
In this brief analysis, I have identified three strategic points in which Starmer holds the floor and the line of reasoning. These are effected with very small and often hidden verbal and non-verbal features.
- averting eye contact
- direct (‘hear me out’)
- skip connecting (ignore)
1. Averting eye contact
Eye contact is very important in face-to-face conversation. It can often be used to signal turn change – we usually look at our partners when we want them to take up the floor. However in this case there is a very obvious averting of eye contact by Starmer when he wants to hold the floor and continue his line or reasoning rather than succumbing to the pressure of Marr.
Starmer has been talking at some length and Marr tries to step in to ask a question in 04. There is some overlap as the fight for the floor but then there is an explicit request by Starmer in line 07 (let me just finish this point) together with a very obvious and sustained aversion of eye contact by Starmer. The eye contact is only re-established once Starmer knows he has retained the floor in 07b.
====== 01 KS: this is a lack of planning 02 on behalf of the government 03 [it was 04 AM: [alright okay 05 KS: [Andrew just just let me finish 05b ((averts eye contact)) 06 AM: [let me- let me ask you about the answers 07 KS: [just let me finish this point 07b ((re-establishes eye contact) 08 AM: [let me ask you about the answers 09 KS: because 10 (0.8) 11 y'know for a long time 12 we've known there a problem with HGV erm drivers 13 that's been there for years
The second example of holding the floor from Starmer comes in line 18 below. Here Starmer gives a very direct request (hear me out Andrew) and also a justification of why in line 18. Note the rapid speed at which Starmer articulates ‘hear me out’ in 18.
====== 14 KS: but we have set out principles today 15 we've set out fiscal rules 16 [on top of that 17 AM: [it's 18 KS: hear me out Andrew 19 because it's very important to your question 20 which is that one of our tax principles 21 one of our tax rules
3. Skip Connecting (Ignore)
The final example of holding the floor is simply to wait until the interviewer has presented their questions and then to continue with what one was saying before the interruption, effectively ignoring the question. The interviewer attempts to take back the floor in line 26 and there is some overlap as they negotiate for the floor. Marr eventually gains this and presents his question in line 37 onwards (‘what happens’). Starmer listens to the question but then skip connects back to what he was talking about previously (‘thirty seven billion pounds’) effectively ignoring the most relevant question.
====== 22 KS: an example I would give 23 is track trace and isolate 24 because the government took an ideological position 25 to put it out to the [private sector 26 AM: [i'm sorry but 27 KS: [thirty (.) 28 AM: we're veering off [to the government again 29 KS: well thirty sev- 30 AM: [yeah I'm still trying to 31 (0.3) 32 KS: [well I'm giving you an example 33 AM: [I'm still trying to understand 34 actually what you would do 35 for the energy companies 36 KS: [thirty 37 AM: [if you're not going to nationalise them 38 and er the ownership is going to change 39 what happens 40 who owns it 41 and how 42 KS: thirty seven billion pounds later on track and trace 43 in the private sector 44 er it should have been in the public sector 45 with our local authorities 46 [when it comes to er common ownership 47 AM: [so 48 KS: we will apply those principles 49 going in to the election 50 AM: listen if you had said that 51 and you can't...
In face-to-face conversation there is an expectation of ‘adjacency’: that we will answer the most recent question put to us. Skip Connecting allows the next speaker to avoid this and jump back to a previous line of argument. Politicians are masters at skip connecting.
Starmer is sometimes classed as an astute if somewhat dull leader compared to Johnson but he has developed some very good conversation strategies for maintaining and holding the floor. I think it will take a very clever interviewer to pin him down in the ensuing years as we run up to a potential early general election sometime in 2023.
The Andrew Marr Show, BBC, Sunday 26th September 2021 (@ approx. 34, 39 and 44 mins)