A sketched picture of James' head

James Smith

Building a better future out of code

Question Time

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Last Saturday, we had the first hustings event of 2015 in Horsham. These were a part of the campaign that I was both looking forward to, and nervous of. After all, it’s the first time that I’ve tried to put across my ideas in person, in front of an audience.

The event was held by the CPRE Sussex branch, with 7 candidates. Well, 6 candidates; the Lib Dems have still not nominated their candidate for the seat, so were represented by local councillor Frances Haigh. While a bit strange, that was better than the first option; for a while they were sending the Guildford candidate down, which is just… weird.

We got send details in advance about the format of the event, and a few opening questions which we could prepare answers to before tackling questions live from the floor.

Talk. A lot.

Obviously, I’m an engineer, not a politician, and while I’m happy with public speaking (and actually quite enjoy it), this is another level, and I was determined to do the right preparation to come across well. Talking about your ideas in public is hard, and takes a lot of confidence to say something solid that the person (or people) opposite you might completely disagree with.

I had a reasonably good start though; my friend Charlie and I have been podcasting about the campaign for the last few months. It’s a good way of getting used to talking about the ideas, and dealing with an interview format (though admittedly a friendly one). Listening back to the podcasts, I can hear myself getting more confident with talking about this stuff as time goes on, and getting better at making my point well. There’s really no substitute for practice!

Also, I’ve done a decent number of interviews with journalists over the last few months, and again that’s excellent practice at getting the point across. The public meetings have also been incredibly useful; though they’re always sparsely-attended, they tend to be a great way of having conversations about ideas with members of the public, and seeing which ideas go across best.

It’s surprised me through all this that it’s not our policy as such that’s going over best, but the way we create it; openly, transparently, and collaboratively. There is a hunger for new forms of democracy across the board, it seems.

Final preparation

In the week before the event, there were two bits of targeted preparation. First, a friend of mine who works in communications was generous enough to give me a couple of hours of her time to do some “media training” sessions, which were incredibly useful. We looked at how people go wrong in media situations, and then did some practice interviews. The lessons I took from that were really:

  • Honesty is best: don’t try to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes
  • Answer the questions directly, but try to stick to what’s unique about you.
  • Don’t be afraid to stop talking. Far better to make a short, punchy point and stop, than ramble on.
  • Be prepared. Have the relevant stats in front of you, and a list of talking points on expected questions.

That leads to the last bit of preparation. The night before, I got a few friends over and we sat around with laptops researching bits of data, refining our talking points, and making sure that I knew the issues properly. We continued that over coffee in the morning before the event. This all really helped get my head in the right place.

The Event

So, on the morning of Saturday 21st April, we headed to the Drill Hall in Horsham for the event. My Something New co-founder Paul came along to handle social media during the event, and my sister looked after the kids so my wife could come along too.

The event opened with the CPRE explaining about themselves and their election manifesto; I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by their approach. It was a lot less NIMBY than I had been expecting. I guess I’ve only really come across them as objectors to things like wind turbines, but there’s obviously a lot more to them than that, and they framed the event in that way as well. While it was focused on the countryside, it was more about how we manage changes rather than just stop them outright.

I was the youngest on the panel, and the only one not dressed formally. I intentionally wore my normal clothes, because anything else would be a lie.


Anyway, then we did our introductions, and as I’m last in alphabetical order, I was last to speak.

Here I have to just state: I’d love to talk about individual candidates and how they performed, but that would be bad form. The chairman had a horn to blow every time a candidate referred to another party or candidate, which was a great thing, and so I’ll try to do the same. I’ll talk generalities about them, but not name any names. You can see it for yourself when the video is up soon, anyway.

So, back to the introductions, and GOD they were boring. It seemed that almost all the speakers leapt straight into why such-and-such a development was wrong, how planning was broken, and so on. That left me in an amazing position at the end to be the one person who spoke positively and passionately about what I believed in, to set the scene for everything else I was going to say. The firm nod from my wife after I finished was a fantastic confidence boost - it helps to have a known ally in the audience who will reassure you!

A few of the candidates were already going over their allotted time in their intro speech, and were being dinged by a bell at the side of the stage to stop. That started being ignored pretty quickly.

Prepared Questions

Then it was on to the prepared questions. I thought we had a one minute time limit on each question, but as soon as it started it became clear that was wrong. The first few speakers were taking 2 minutes (as for the intros), and of course running over that. My wife confirmed that from the audience with hand signals, and I immediately started thinking about what else I wanted to say to fill the time that I wasn’t going to use.

However, then I remembered the media training sessions, and the power of stopping early. So, I stuck with my 1 minute answers, and while the rest of the panel went on and on, I delivered my answers quickly and positively, and let things move on before the bell was anywhere near. This was exactly the right thing to do.

Subject Matter

It also helped that I was happy making what I thought might be unpopular points. From the very beginning of this, I’ve made sure I don’t care who disagrees with me, and that’s really powerful. I expected the audience to be much less on my side on many things, but in the end it turned out the other way. If I’d tried to adapt my message to what I thought the audience would want, I would have been wrong, and it would have been dull. Better to say the thing you believe, and stick to it. The passion shows.

This post is already long enough to get a film adaptation, so I won’t go into too much more detail about the event itself and what we said. There will be video up later which you can watch, if you want to.

But, I do have to include this bit:

At one point, an obviously very angry man demanded time to ask his question, which he was granted. He then asked about immigration, and how the countryside would be affected by all these people coming over here taking our women, stealing our jobs etc etc.

The chairman dealt with this very well. He immediately shut the guy down, saying that he wouldn’t accept the question. The rationale, which I think is right, is that we’d already spent half the event talking about pressures on the countryside from expanding population and urbanisation. The only thing that talking about immigration would achieve was to bring race into it; the issues are the same, no matter who the people involved are.

The guy did get a round of applause for asking his question, presumably from the substantial UKIP contingent in the room, but the round of applause when he stormed out was much bigger, which I particularly enjoyed.

Bring it on

All in all, I really enjoyed the event. The reviews I heard afterwards were excellent, and put me in with only a couple of others as credible options, which was lovely to hear. We came across really positively, and I think it bodes well for the rest of the campaign.

I’m looking forward to the next one on April 22nd, and I really hope that we can get some more happening. They’re great events, and we need more of them to get people re-engaged with our democracy.


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