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The politician and the actor--learning to communicate on television/ Le politicien et l'acteur--apprendre a communiquer a la television.

Television has become a pervasive form of communication in our world and its encompassing nature ensures that any political leader unable or unwilling to use it as a means of communication will be at a distinct disadvantage in getting their message across. In Canada, most politicians will still experience the majority of their public speaking in parliament or other live venues. But, as more parliaments across Canada broadcast their proceedings, and television increasingly becomes the primary medium for receiving information, the ability to communicate on camera takes on added importance. When a politician is unsuccessful at communicating in the television medium, it is common to blame the media for shallow or biased representation, but the reality is far more complex.


The television media cannot be dismissed as simply a means of communication. It is not a benign force transmitting information. It plays an active role in the political process on many levels. In order to best communicate with the audience the politician must have as much knowledge as possible about the practical and cultural aspects of television performance. Yet despite the participation of communications directors, press secretaries and media consultants, relatively little attention is paid to the specific requirements of a televised public performance. In this regard, politicians could learn from professional television actors--fellow performers who have studied the requirements of the television medium.

For a politician, understanding performance from the perspective of a professional television actor makes sense because that is also how the audience will understand television performance. Since television has been primarily a medium of entertainment, it has created a society familiar with and possibly expectant of a similar style of information delivery. The audience's ability to interpret or judge a politician's performance on television will come, in part, from their experiences in watching professional performers in that same medium. Members of the public, of all socio-economic classes, now have access to performance of all kinds on a scale that is historically unprecedented. This has had a tremendous effect on the very cognitive skills of our society. Exposure to regular mediated performance has given the audience a basis for understanding and interpreting what they see. It is rare, however, for the audience to consciously question how they came by this awareness, or what role it plays in their decisions regarding a performer.

The television audience learns to look for and assign meaning to the significance of camera movements, editing and other visual effects of television just as they interpret the actions and behaviours of those characters that fill television screens. The audience watching a political performance is interpreting it with those tools of analysis learned from television, but without any adaptation for the nature of the political performance. They are still drawing upon their knowledge of the format; a format largely comprised of entertainment-oriented performances.

There are, however, things to be learned from these performers. Actors and entertainment producers know that there are several distinct differences between communicating on television and communicating in a live performance. Actor's manuals for television performance often describe the difference between live oratory and televised communication as a difference in proximity. When speaking in parliament, a town hall or other live performance space, the audience is at some distance from the performer, and it is anticipated that the performer will accommodate those furthest from the stage. Therefore even those in the front row will anticipate a heightened level of performance. The voice will need to be louder, the gestures bigger, and diction clearer. The performer's primary emphasis is not on the subtleties of eye movement or small gestures as they would be imperceptible to all but the closest audience members.

On television the audience is only as distant as the camera, which in most instances is at a close proximity to the performer. In this case, the same subtleties used in one on one communication are highly visible and often magnified. A journalist or editor can focus the audience's attention on a specific gesture or expression, thereby giving it particular significance. A common mistake made by politicians uncomfortable with the television camera is to increase their physical expressiveness. With the camera in such close proximity, it is often necessary to tone down action, and keep eye movements at the level one would use during a close one-on-one conversation. The camera's gaze brings the audience members so close that added movement can have the same impact of screaming in someone's face. The seasoned performer will respond to the camera as they would respond to a colleague standing next to them on an elevator.

The issue of proximity is also an issue of intimacy and formality. When the audience is at a physical distance, there is a naturally assumed formality to even the most uneventful communication. The physical separation between audience and performer will encourage a more structured presentation. The camera eliminates that distance and therefore encourages a more intimate approach to communication.

Professional actors and television producers also know that on television, images have as much meaning as words. Once the performer enters the performance area, all of his or her actions, however unconscious or unintentional, are interpreted as some sort of sign. Whether this sign is directly related to the content of the presentation, or is interpreted as a spontaneous act, it nonetheless assumes a far greater significance because the politician has been framed as a performer.

The audience is directed in their gaze by the camera. They do not have the option of looking at the whole picture, or taking their time to interpret the details of what is being said. The average news clip lasts only 30 seconds, making it imperative that the message is given as succinctly as possible. That means that messages have to be communicated visually as well as verbally. When a politician speaks to television media, their non-verbal communication must match their verbal message. Otherwise, the story will be about the presentation, and not about the information. That means that their actions, their clothing, their tone of voice, and even their physical environment must support their message. Everything included in the communication has to be part of the communication.

Actors know that there is no such thing as unbiased television. Television does not reflect reality; it recreates it. Just as language provides a means of interpreting our reality, and of forming our understanding of it, so does television interpret and alter our perception of the world. Even when images of a parliamentary debate are broadcast without interpretation or comment by a host, there are still plenty of factors that could influence the images that the audience will see. Lighting, room colour and room design will likely be altered to accommodate television cameras. Decisions must be made on what proceedings will receive coverage, as well as what shots and angles will be used. Where will the camera be positioned? Will empty seats be shown on camera? Will the gallery be shown? Will it focus on the person who is speaking or the reaction of those listening? Will the shots be cut to show both, and if so, at what point? These and many other questions must be answered by those in charge of producing this supposedly unaltered documentation of public affairs, and yet it is clear that the answer to any one of those could impact the audience's perception of events. Taking this into consideration, as well as the very fact of the politician's awareness of a potentially increased audience, and the concept of the unobtrusive 'fly-on-the-wall' coverage is no longer a simplistic possibility. In other words, the old axiom that the camera does not lie is not entirely correct. Although the images caught on camera may be irrefutable, the context of the footage can seriously alter interpretation. Television coverage can be, by its very nature, confusing, as it provides images that have been taken out of context. The belief that television has created a world of instant information and irrefutable truth is far from accurate. It is this very pretence of absolute honesty that generates such confusion. It ensures that the audience does not go to any great lengths to evaluate the context of the images they see. They accept the images of television as factual and honest.

It is not because of the media that performance is inherent in political communication, but it has certainly played a crucial role in increasing awareness of performance in political communication, and demanding additional skills on the part of the politician. Yet the proliferation of television has many potential benefits to the public and the politician. Television offers a much broader audience base than any live rally or gathering could hope to achieve and has the added advantage of being broadcast to those who would perhaps not readily attend such a gathering. Television, through news programs, political specials, parliamentary broadcasts and other coverage, has the ability to introduce a more diverse information base to a more diverse audience.

Yet political performers remain at a disadvantage in this area. This is due in part to a continued cultural reluctance to acknowledge that performance skills are needed by the politician. It is also due to the television audience's misunderstanding of the nature of political performance in many contexts. Without proper understanding of political performance, the very nature of the media can give false impressions, create unrealistic expectations, and change how information is processed and discussed. It is essential that the political performer understand the significance and the requirements of communication through media. It is equally important that the audience receiving that communication be aware of those same factors. A good first step is to acknowledge the necessity of performance in television communication. And, just as professional actors would, take the time to really know what it takes to communicate your message.

Kimberley D. Mullins holds a Ph.D. in Politics and Performance from the University of Newcastle, United Kingdom. She currently lives and works in St. John's, NL.

La television est devenue un mode de communication universel et, en raison de son importance, tout dirigeant politique qui ne peut pas ou ne veut pas s'en servir pour communiquer sera nettement desavantage lorsqu 'il voudra faire passer son message. Au Canada, la plupart des politiciens prononcent encore la majorite de leurs discours au Parlement ou dans d'autres lieux publics. Cependant, puisque davantage de Parlements canadiens diffusent leurs seances et que la television constitue la principale source d'information, il devient d'autant plus important de savoir s 'exprimer devant une camera. Lorsqu 'un politicien ne reussit pas a communiquer efficacement a la television, les medias sont souvent accuses de presenter une image tendancieuse ou superficielle de cette personne. La realite est pourtant bien plus complexe.

La television ne peut pas etre uniquement consideree comme un moyen de communication. Elle ne transmet pas l'information de facon anodine et elle tient un role important dans le systeme politique, et ce, sur beaucoup de plans. Afin de communiquer efficacement avec son public, le politicien doit posseder une connaissance profonde des aspects pratiques et culturels de la prestation televisee. Pourtant, malgre le concours de directeurs des communications, d'attaches de presse et de conseillers-medias, les exigences particulieres d'une prestation televisee sont negligees. Les politiciens auraient interet a se faire conseiller par des acteurs de television professionnels, qui exercent un metier apparente et qui connaissent bien les exigences de la television.

En comprenant la prestation televisee du point de vue d'un acteur professionnel, le politicien se donne un atout, car c'est sous ce meme angle que le public comprend la prestation televisee. Puisque la television est essentiellement un media consacre au divertissement, la societe s'est habituee a un style de prestation semblable a celui des acteurs, auquel elle s'attend de la part des politiciens. La capacite des telespectateurs d'interpreter ou de juger la prestation d'un politicien a la television vient, en partie, de ce qu'ils ont appris en regardant des interpretes professionnels. Toutes classes socioeconomiques confondues, la population a maintenant acces a des prestations televisees de tout genre, a un niveau jusqu'ici inconnu. Ce phenomene a eu une tres grande incidence sur les aptitudes cognitives des membres de notre societe. En regardant regulierement des prestations a la television, le public a assimile des principes de base qui lui servent de reference pour comprendre et interpreter ce qu'il voit. Toutefois, il est rare que les telespectateurs remettent consciemment en question comment ils ont acquis ces connaissances ou quel role elles jouent lorsqu'ils jaugent un interprete.

Lorsque le public interprete les actions et les comportements des personnages qu'il retrouve dans les emissions de television, il apprend a donner une signification aux mouvements de camera, au montage et aux autres effets visuels. En regardant un politicien s'exprimer a la television, les telespectateurs comprennent ce qu'ils voient en se referant aux outils d'analyse qu'ils ont appris, mais sans les adapter a la nature politique de la prestation. Ils s'appuient sur ce qu'ils connaissent de la television, qui diffuse essentiellement des emissions a caractere divertissant.

Ces interpretes peuvent toutefois servir de modele. Les acteurs et les producteurs d'emissions de divertissement savent qu'il existe des differences claires entre le jeu a la television et les prestations en direct. Les manuels dont se servent les acteurs du petit ecran pour apprendre leur metier affirment souvent que la difference entre le discours en direct et le jeu a la television en est une de proximite. Lorsqu'une personne s'exprime au Parlement, a l'hotel de ville ou dans un autre lieu public, l'auditoire se trouve a une certaine distance de l'orateur, qui devrait donc adapter sa prestation aux personnes situees loin de la scene. Par consequent, meme les spectateurs situes dans les premiers rangs s'attendent a une prestation plus dynamique. L'orateur parle plus fort, accentue ses mouvements et articule davantage. Les mouvements subtils des yeux ou les gestes furtifs prennent moins d'importance, car seuls les spectateurs situes a l'avant peuvent les voir.

Lorsque le public regarde la television, il est aussi proche de l'image que la camera, qui est generalement situee tres pres de l'interprete. Les memes subtilites qui apparaissent au cours d'un entretien en tete a tete sont, dans ce cas, tres visibles et meme plus evidentes. Un journaliste ou un monteur peut faire en sorte que l'auditoire dirige son attention vers une expression ou un geste particuliers et, de ce fait, donner une signification precise a ces signes. Les politiciens qui ne sont pas a l'aise devant une camera commettent souvent l'erreur d'exagerer leurs expressions gestuelles. Puisque la camera se trouve si pres, il est souvent necessaire de moderer ses mouvements et d'adopter un regard qui est propre aux conversations en tete a tete. La camera rapproche le telespectateur a un tel point qu'un mouvement trop prononce produit le meme effet que de crier devant quelqu'un. L'acteur d'experience agirait devant la camera comme il se comporterait avec un collegue dans un ascenseur.

La question de la proximite est egalement liee a l'intimite et aux formalites. Lorsque le public se trouve a une certaine distance, meme le discours le plus ordinaire est naturellement empreint de formalites. La separation physique entre les spectateurs et l'orateur donne lieu a une presentation plus structuree. La camera elimine cette distance et, donc, favorise une technique de communication plus intime.

Les acteurs professionnels et les producteurs de television savent egalement que les images sont aussi importantes que les mots a la television. Une fois que l'acteur est devant la camera, toutes ses actions, qu'elles soient conscientes ou non, sont recues comme un genre de signe. Que ce signe soit directement lie au contenu de la presentation ou qu'il soit interprete comme une action spontanee, sa signification est ici bien plus importante, car le politicien est percu de la meme maniere qu'un acteur.

La camera guide le regard du telespectateur. Celui-ci n'a pas la possibilite de voir le lieu dans son ensemble ni de prendre son temps pour interpreter les details du discours. Aux nouvelles, chaque sequence dure en moyenne seulement 30 secondes : le message doit donc etre livre le plus brievement possible et il doit etre communique autant visuellement que verbalement. Lorsqu'un politicien parle a la television, son langage non verbal doit concorder avec ce qu'il dit. Sinon, la nouvelle portera davantage sur la presentation que sur l'information. Les gestes, les vetements, le ton de voix et meme l'environnement physique doivent donc appuyer le message. Tous les elements de la prestation doivent faire partie du message.

Les acteurs savent que la television ne constitue pas un media impartial. Elle ne reflete pas la realite, elle la recree. Tout comme la langue nous sert d'outil pour donner un sens a notre propre realite et la comprendre, la television interprete et modifie notre perception du monde. Meme lorsqu'un debat parlementaire est diffuse sans l'explication d'un commentateur, de multiples facteurs peuvent avoir une incidence sur les images que voient les telespectateurs. L'eclairage ainsi que la couleur et l'apparence de la piece sont des elements qui seront probablement modifies pour mieux paraitre a la camera. Il faut decider quelles seances seront couvertes, choisir les prises de vue et les angles de camera. Comment la camera sera-t-elle placee? Les sieges vides seront-ils montres a l'ecran? La tribune fera-t-elle partie des plans? La camera se concentrera-t-elle sur l'orateur ou sur la reaction des spectateurs? Y aura-t-il des plans mixtes des deux et, dans l'affirmative, quand? Ce sont les personnes chargees de presenter les affaires publiques de facon pretendument neutre qui doivent repondre a ces questions et a bien d'autres. Pourtant, la reponse a n'importe laquelle de ces questions pourrait clairement influencer le point de vue des telespectateurs a l'egard des evenements. Compte tenu de cette observation et du fait que les politiciens savent que le nombre de telespectateurs peut augmenter, l'option simpliste de tourner les evenements sur le vif et de les presenter sobrement n'est plus valable. Autrement dit, l'ancienne maxime qui dit que la camera ne ment pas n'est pas tout a fait vraie. Meme si les images captees sont authentiques, le contexte dans lequel la sequence est filmee peut vraiment influencer l'interpretation. Par leur nature, les reportages televises peuvent preter a confusion, car ils presentent des images qui ne sont plus dans leur contexte. Il est faux de penser que la television a cree un monde d'information instantanee et de verite absolue. C'est cette allegation meme de verite absolue qui entraine la confusion : elle empeche les telespectateurs de faire des efforts pour dechiffrer le contexte dans lequel les images sont presentees. Le public accepte ce qu'il voit comme etant de l'information factuelle et objective.

Ce ne sont pas les medias qui ont fait de la prestation un element essentiel de la communication politique, mais ils ont certainement encourage les politiciens a etre plus conscients du role de la prestation dans ce type de communication, ce qui les incite a acquerir davantage de competences dans ce domaine. La proliferation de la television procure de nombreux avantages possibles au public et au politicien. La television attire bien plus de spectateurs que n'importe quel rassemblement public et, en plus, elle est regardee par des gens qui n'assisteraient pas naturellement a ce genre de rencontre. Grfice a de nouvelles emissions, a des emissions speciales consacrees a la politique et a la diffusion de debats parlementaires et d'autres evenements, la television possede le pouvoir de presenter des informations variees a un public qui l'est tout autant.

Cependant, les politiciens qui s'expriment devant le public demeurent desavantages, en partie parce que, culturellement, on hesite toujours a reconnaitre que les politiciens doivent avoir des competences en matiere de prestation. De plus, les telespectateurs ne comprennent pas bien la nature des prestations politiques, et ce, dans un grand nombre de contextes. Si le public n'interprete pas bien ces prestations, le media lui-meme peut communiquer de fausses impressions, creer des attentes irrealistes et changer la maniere dont l'information est traitee et discutee. Les politiciens doivent comprendre l'importance de la communication a la television ainsi que les exigences qui y sont liees. De plus, les telespectateurs a qui ils s'adressent doivent etre conscients de ces memes facteurs. La premiere etape consiste a reconnaitre l'importance du cote divertissant de ce type de communication. Et, a l'instar des acteurs, il faut prendre le temps de se doter des atouts necessaires pour communiquer son message.

Kimberley D. Mullins est titulaire d'un doctorat en politique et performance de l'Universite de Newcastle, au Royaume-Uni. Elle travaille et vit actuellement a St. John "s, a Terre-Neuve.
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Author:Mullins, Kimberly D.
Publication:Canadian Parliamentary Review
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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