The Guardian can reveal that Howell, who runs a psychological coaching firm in Nottingham, has been one of a small group of advisers closeted with Salmond as he prepares for the live referendum debate on STV on Tuesday, 44 days before the 18 September referendum. It will be the first head-to-head contest between the two campaign leaders – Scottish first minister Salmond and Darling, chairman of the official anti-independence campaign Better Together.
With the yes (to independence) vote trailing by about 14 points in polls Salmond is facing intense pressure to win the contest against Darling. The Scottish National party formally launches its yes campaign a few days later, and is hoping Salmond's performance will be a turning point.
Howell has had a long, close association with Salmond and the SNP. She is credited with helping him win power in 2007 and then to achieve his landslide Holyrood victory in 2011, and has been a dinner guest of Salmond and of Angus Robertson, the SNP's Westminster leader.
Howell stresses the need to use positive, optimistic language in political campaigning, and has banned the SNP from using the word "freedom". She has urged Salmond and SNP MSPs to use words such as "exciting", "historic" and "transformational", and coached SNP candidates by fining them for using negative language during training sessions.
One of her favourite mantras is that a positive message always trumps a negative message. Her firm REDco, the Really Effective Development Company, has a 10 point strategy which lists "the magic of change" and "open your mind".
The Red 10 further states: "Clearly expressed goals are fundamental to successfully achieving our ambitions. If we know what we want, then we can use the power of our imagination to create detailed mental images of our new reality."
REDco advises that: "Musicians and other artists know that the better they are prepared mentally, the better they'll perform. The techniques they use to visualise an outcome before it happens are applied by high achievers in many fields [to] ensure that they are in shape to perform at their best."
Both Salmond and Darling are being heavily drilled on the right tone, phrases and messages to use in their debate, which will take place before a studio audience of about 300 – a mixture of yes and no voters and undecideds.
STV is expecting a substantial seven figure audience, with both campaigns trying to woo the million or so voters estimated to be undecided or willing to switch sides.
Salmond is regarded as one of Britain's most skilled and experienced political debaters, and his advisers say most voters will expect him to outclass Darling.
But one source close to Salmond said he won debates largely because he prepared hard. "He prepares very carefully for all these things; he always has done," said the key adviser. "You never enter into these things with any sense of complacency."
The two camps are also in intense negotiations with the BBC about staging a second live debate after the first minister rejected two dates – 12 and 21 August.
Better Together insists Darling not debate Salmond after postal votes are sent out on 26 August; yes strategists believe that is because Better Together fears Salmond would win that debate too.
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