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Lessons from the Presidential podium

photo by: AP Photo/Morry Gash, Pool

Yesterday I put myself through a lot of pain. Three separate painful sessions to be exact. One was necessary (a dentist appointment), one was frivolous (got a new tattoo), and one brought you this blog post (the first 2020 US presidential debate).

I tried to live stream the debate during my tattoo appointment, but it was more excruciating to sit through than the tattoo itself. So I decided it needed its own time. If you haven't watched the debate yet, don't. Even debate drinking games were not enough turn this disaster around.

In my ninth grade (year 10) English class, Mr. Maechner taught us how to debate. I know he wouldn't have given either participant a good grade for their debate performance. I participated in more inspirational debates from better debaters in Mr. Maechner's 2009 classroom than the world was subjected to last night.

American news networks lambasted the debate. Maybe that's just fake news. A German journalist didn't mince words when he stated the debate was a joke, a low point, a shame for the country. A former British diplomat said, my own response is that it makes me despondent about America. The country we have looked to for leadership has descended into an ugly brawl.

Presentation matters

Like Dinah did after the first NZ leader's debate, I'm going to do everything in my power to keep politics out of this and to focus on the presentation skills on display. We run presentation and facilitation skills workshops with clients and know how vital this skill is for people, leaders, teams, projects, and organisations to thrive.

MIT Instructor, Patrick Winston states, The Uniform Code of Military Justice specifies court martial for any officer who sends a soldier into battle without a weapon. There ought to be a similar protection for students because students shouldn't go out into life without the ability to communicate. And that's because your success in life will be determined largely be your ability to speak, your ability to write, and the quality of your ideas, in that order.

Five takeaways from the first U.S. presidential debate.

1. How you look tells a story

In the 1970s Professor Albert Mehrabian, published a study on communications that is still widely cited today. In short, what you say is not nearly as important as how you say it and what you look like when you're saying it. Mehrabian quantified it as the following:

  • Verbal (what you say + words you use) = 7%

  • Vocal (how you sound when you say something, your tone) = 38%

  • Visual (what you look like as you say it) = 55%

So how did the candidates look?

photo by: The Guardian

Throughout the debate Trump looked strong, calm, and in control. He stood with his feet close together and both hands firmly gripping the podium. He mostly gestured with one hand at a time, leaving the other firmly in place. When confronted with tough questions or his contradictory statements, he didn't bat an eye. He instead adopted an almost frowning serious face, as seen in this photo.

While Biden was teeing off on Trump for some pretty massive issues (handling of Covid, Trump contradicting his own health experts, racial divides, etc), Trump was teflon. Nothing stuck to him and he never looked offended or hurt by the assertions. It might have been all duck's feet paddling under the surface, but Trump didn't look like that on screen. And that matters.

Biden took a different approach. He clearly wanted to battle the "Sleepy Joe" label, and showed up with a bright face, bright eyes, and bright teeth. Yes, he wanted to look strong and firm, but he allowed himself to show some emotions. He also used his hands and gestures to emphasise his point. When he disagreed with the President, he would laugh and shake his head: a clear message not to take Trump seriously. He looked directly into the camera, using strong eye contact to connect with the potential voters.

Did either one look great? Depends. They were both on brand, had a few strong moments, and clearly practised their physical delivery. To be honest, for most of the almost two hours, I just saw three men in their 70's yelling at each other like children. Not very becoming all around.

2. Delivery, delivery, delivery

According to Mehrabian's study, how you say and deliver something is paramount. Both candidates highlighted this.

Biden had some well-prepared zingers. Here's some I can remember:

  • The wrong guy, the wrong night, at the wrong time (a great example of list of three)

  • You know, he talks about the art of the deal. China has perfected the art of the steal.

  • It is what it is, because you are who you are.

But his delivery was lackluster and the comments fell completely flat. In both cases Trump didn't even acknowledge what he said. It's no wonder the quote that's come out of the debate is Biden's frustrated Would you shut up, man? It was memorable because of the energy and tone.

Trump reminded us that if you say anything confidently, that's enough. He used definitive statements, offering no evidence or backing for them. But he didn't need to in this format; his tone was enough. For example his statement I've done more in 47 months than you've done in 47 years, Joe was powerful. Is it true? I don't know and his supporters don't need to. Great line, well delivered.

3. Words are powerful

Again, we saw how the words we choose say a lot about us. President Trump rarely mentioned the words "The Left" without the adjective radical somewhere in the sentence. This is purposeful. He also called Biden's healthcare plan a Manifesto. That's hardly ever used kindly. And Biden played into Trump's hand by repeating manifesto himself. Something we tell presenters not to do (don't repeat or use words you don't want people to remember).

Biden had some choice names for the President: racist, clown, the worst President America has ever had. His other strategy was stronger: use the President's own words against him. Biden knows the Trump's supporters don't care about what he says, but they might hold the President to account for his previous statements. (Unlikely).

Both sides choose words and messages they knew would be homeruns for their base. Both knew what words would trigger, excite, upset, and anger their voters. And we know people will not do until they feel. Both men want people to vote for them. But they're evoking different feelings with the words they use:

  • Biden: wants you to feel Trump is unqualified, unprepared, and out of his depth. Repeatedly stated Trump had no plan and has failed to deal with issues in his term. Vote for Biden because he knows what he's doing.

  • Trump: wants you to be fearful of what a Biden presidency would mean (anarchy and socialism, apparently). In the debate he repeated past claims that 'our suburbs would be gone.' Vote for Trump because Biden is going to attack your way of life, the way of life that makes America great.

4. Transitions are helpful, but don't overuse them

Speakers can help themselves, by keeping the audience aware of where they are in the response or story. Often speakers will do this through strong transitions (ie first, next, lastly...I'll tell you about the past, present, then future). It helps the audience pay attention and gives them opportunities to jump back in, if their minds do momentarily wander.

Biden used numbers to help with this: Number one....number two....number three. Firstly, secondly, thirdly. By the end of it, I started to feel like he was showing off his counting skills. Three responses with three points was enough for me. Trump called him out when he skipped the second point in one of these responses. (Always a risk with assigning yourself numbered responses!)

Trump doesn't use traditional transitions to move through his responses. Instead, there seem to be alternative trails the responses take at any stage, and that suspense and uncertainty is enough to keep and capture people's attention.

The ultimate goal of presenting is capturing people's attention. Most people agree there are moral and ethical limits to what this should be (for example, honesty). From my seat, not quite sure if it's the best presidential communication strategy, but for five years the worlds been all ears for anything Trump says or types, so it's hitting some metrics.

5. Rule number one: All eyes on you

When you are presenting, you are the presentation. The goal is to have everyone focused on you and following your story or train of thought. You may use gestures, props, stories, or slides to help with this. You may use interactive activities, like asking the audience to raise their hand, stand up, or use a real-time polling tool.

Trump is great at this. When he's in the room, people are aware and paying attention. He commands that attention with his presentation and style, but also through his tactics. The most used phrase of the night must have been Mr. President, pleeeeeeease stop. Christopher Wallace as a moderator was commanding about as much respect as a substitute teacher. Trump knew he could distract and get the focus on him by continuously interrupting. It was an annoying but successful tactic in that it distracted Biden and drew our attention back onto Trump. Win/win.

How do you keep the focus and attention on you when you're presenting?

Bonus tip: Know your audience.

As a final note I have to call out this wonderful use of knowing your audience that gave me a chuckle during a very sad hour.

I mentioned in point 3 that both men spoke to their bases. They also spoke to the home crowd. The debate took place in Cleveland, Ohio (my hometown). And if you know Ohio you know it's a football (gridiron) state.

Trump must have knew this when he responded to a question about opening schools with I'm the one that brought back football. By the way, I brought back Big Ten football. It was me and I'm very happy to do it and the people of Ohio are very proud of me.

If you're preparing to present (whether to one other person, a team, or live across the world) all of these items should be thought about beforehand: how you look, how you sound, your main messages, your transitions, your engagement, and your audience.

And what was that tattoo?

Proof that Cleveland really is my hometown.


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