How to get your round of applause

Observations on BBC Question Time

The BBC Question Time audience behaves like a crowd, and crowds have properties distinct from their constituent parts. The first observer of this phenomenon may also have been the best. In 1895, Gustave Le Bon, author of The Crowd: a study of the popular mind, noted: "Crowds can only comprehend rough-and-ready associations of ideas . . . The laws of logic have no action . . . it is necessary . . . to thoroughly comprehend the sentiments by which they are animated, to pretend to share these sentiments, then to endeavour to modify them by calling up, by means of rudimentary associations, certain eminently suggestive notions . . ."

In other words, the audience does not care how clever you are; it cares how clever it is. This is bad news for nuance. One qualification at the start of your answer can be useful, but more than one is usually fatal for applause

Consider one recent panellist - Zac Goldsmith, editor of the Ecologist: ". . . I wish the effort that had been put into this anti-smoking campaign had been put into the anti-chemical campaign . . . three-quarters of all cancers are not in the lungs . . . I'm not saying that smoking doesn't cause cancer . . . but smoking has been a convenient scapegoat to allow the government . . . to avoid pointing their finger at things that we know cause cancer but which somehow remain in the market for years . . . It took 18 years to ban Atrazine . . . We cannot avoid these chemicals and we need the regulators to help us there."

This was a far more astute reply than your usual health mantras, but it earned few claps. You get applause when you reaffirm what the audience believes. It is a way for them to say: "I am with you on that." You cannot be with someone on Atrazine if you have never heard of the stuff.

Contrast this with professional politicians, who understand how to maximise the volume and duration of applause. The first thing is rhythm. A good point may earn a few discordant claps, but a harmony of applause requires a crescendo. You should start quietly, but with something arresting. A few pithy remarks are called for, and perhaps an argument. To maximise applause, it is imperative to end well.

For instance, on 2 June, Baroness (Shirley) Williams earned a hearty ten seconds of applause when she tackled political opportunism on the prospective fuel tax: ". . . it's hypocrisy by Michael Howard. [He] voted for the Iraq war, which is one of the reasons why the whole Middle East is in turmoil . . . We've been living in a fool's world in which we kid ourselves into thinking that we are not going to be looking at a steady increase in oil prices over the years ahead . . . we should be putting the money we get from fuel tax into public transport . . . What do we think we are going to do when the oil begins to run out? Bicycle?"

Another major issue is language, which should generate images. On an earlier Question Time, Patricia Hewitt (Labour) warmed up the audience with: "We need to get in there [Europe] and fight our corner." David Laws (Lib Dem) earned louder applause by arguing that Con- servative policy would place Britain on "an escalator out of the EU". But Amanda Platell (ex-Tory spin-doctor) was victorious: "It's not about bent bananas, it's about bent politicians!"

Finally, beware of those who interrupt. Liam Fox (Tory) ticked all the boxes needed for applause: "If the British people choose to vote against an EU constitution, that is their right . . . especially when we get to the anniversary of D-Day when the British people fought for their freedom . . . for a little intelligentsia [he glanced at the Guardian's Polly Toynbee) to tell the people of Britain that they don't know what's best for them . . . it's outrageous . . ." Then he paused for a final line. Toynbee interjected. Fox elbowed her away with another rousing sentiment, but his thunder had been stolen, and nobody clapped.

You cannot prevent some interruptions, but it helps to make eye contact with whomever is most likely to interrupt you. Baroness Williams regularly looked across at David Dimbleby, but Fox took his eyes off Toynbee just long enough for her to feel obliged to defend herself.