Blogs & Comment

Budget body language

How the leaders actions and reactions gave away their thoughts on the 2011 revised budget.

Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty answers questions in the House of Commons after delivering the federal budget on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, June 6, 2011. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)

From tone of voice to garish tie, lots of careful preparation goes into projecting the perfect image and party line before an event like the June 6 budget reveal. Anne Sowden, a certified professional image consultant based in Toronto, watched as the remarkably similar financial plan was uncovered, and she made note of what the politicians’ tone of voice, body language and mannerisms indicated about their feelings. Sowden watched most of the speeches and scrum period with the sound on mute, because, as she says, “You can tell a lot about what a person is saying just by reading their body language.”

Canadian Business: Let’s start by talking a bit about today’s dress code. As an image consultant, what did you think of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s choice of apparel today?
Anne Sowden: It’s the classic dark suit, but boy does that tie make a statement. He’s got a light green and a dark green in the tie and green says many things. It says young, vibrant and new. Think about spring when things are growing and everything’s novel—it says renewal. It also says money, so there’s two things going on there—are they going to spend or save our money? The thing about men’s ties is that the whole point of them is to draw attention to the man’s face, and that one really does.

CB: Were there any notable points where Flaherty’s body language betrayed that he may have been quite satisfied with the way things turned out, keeping in mind that a lot has changed since the original budget was released in March?
AS: I noticed Jim Flaherty and Stephen Harper walking in and they were both smiling. Now, Stephen Harper doesn’t have the most genuine smile in the world, but the message I got was “This is it, we’ve really done it. Now, we can go do whatever we want.” It was a really confident smile.

CB: Did you think that their delight looked genuine?
AS: Yes, because they’ve been struggling with this for some time. Flaherty, as he should, is addressing everything to the speaker. He stands very straight and still while he speaks, which is great. There are no distractions there so that once you get past the tie; you’re really paying attention to what he’s saying.

CB: If the Conservatives hadn’t been in such a strong position today with the majority government, what differences might we have seen in Flaherty’s presentation?
AS: I wouldn’t have seen the smiles and relaxed posture. They would have looked a little tense and it would have been more perfunctory when they walked past the media. They look calm, but it doesn’t come across as being arrogant.

CB: Now, that seems like an important distinction. What separates confidence and arrogance.
AS: It would be the tone of voice. I’ve always had the impression that Jim Flaherty is a genuine guy, and he’s very consistent in his behaviour. That says to me that he’s a good choice as a finance minister because he’s steady. He’s not a John Baird who tends to fly off the handle!

CB: This budget tweaking wasn’t really thought to contain any surprises. Was there anything that indicated that people were at all surprised by the results?
AS: I haven’t picked up on anything in the body language or eye contact. But there were some real digs at the opposition at the beginning. I think that’s to be expected. But the way he said it was very calm—he didn’t sound annoyed, it was just part of the speech. There was nothing snarky about it.

ON BOB RAE:

CB: Here’s Bob Rae in the scrum. What do you notice that’s different in his mannerisms compared to Flaherty?
AS: Bob doesn’t look happy. He’s not making a lot of eye contact, and he’s squinting his eyes as he tends to do when he’s unhappy. He’s hunched over and his chin is tilted down. Scrums are difficult because you never really know where to look—he’s probably standing with his hands in his pockets.

CB: You can tell just by looking at the tops of his shoulders?
AS: Yes, I can. He’s not really standing up straight. He’s hunched over and shrugging his shoulders. It’s uncomfortable body language. I think he’s saying, “We’ve got a lot of work to do and it’s going to be a hard slog.”

ON JACK LAYTON:

CB: I notice Jack Layton’s sitting calmly now, to talk about his feelings on the budget with the CBC.
AS: Yes, he’s obviously taken time to prepare, and that’s coming across strong. Jack Layton is always well prepared and he’s always the most media savvy of the group. They’re having a conversation—a discussion—and that’s what I like. It’s not like Rae who looks caught off guard. And today, Jack looks quite serious, and he’s toned down his smiles. He’s looking more like a statesman and he’s changing his image and slowly molding the public’s perception. He’s rebranding the NDP, and at the same time coming across as a lot calmer. Jack is sitting and I see a real contrast between his position here and Bob Rae’s hunched position. Standing is a lot more formal, while sitting is informal. He’s saying this is the reality and we need to work with what we got instead of shouting—that will come in a couple of days! Layton’s tone and posture makes him come across as in control because he’s prepared and relaxed. His focus now is on consistency and strategy and that’s a real turn-around for the NDP.

CB: Any other changes you noticed?
AS: Just that Jack has toned down the pointing. Pointing says, “I’m better than you and I’m telling you off.” I notice too that Michael Ignatieff had a habit of doing that too. Pointing a finger at someone is scolding them, and now Jack seems to have moved beyond that tactic.