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.

  1. averting eye contact
  2. direct (‘hear me out’)
  3. 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

External link to clip (audio)
Averting eye contact (video)

2. Direct

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

External link to clip (audio)

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...

External link to clip (audio)

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)