Last night’s presidential debate was a pleasure to watch. President Obama and Governor Romney have extensive debate experience—over 50 debates between them—and the wonky political knowledge that a candidate must master to exude credibility. Both were able to project power, articulate complicated ideas clearly, and engage the audience. But Romney’s performance had a little extra pizzazz, a more deftly crafted message, and the energy that comes when a speaker knows that he is doing well, which let him carry the night.
Here are some of the expert techniques you were treated to last night.
Make Your Structure Clear
A presidential debate is not like the kind of debating you might have done in high school. The goal for a high school debater is to make as many points as possible as quickly as possible in order to rack up the highest number of points. The winning high school debater doesn’t choose the strongest arguments; he makes all the arguments he can, in the hope that the judges will tick off one more box on the scorecard. Often, high school debates turn into a laundry list of too many points with no priority assigned to the ones that are the most significant.
To win a presidential debate, you have to get a message through to your audience. That means you have to be selective—you have to choose a few important points to make so that your message sinks in. If you are all over the map, we won’t understand you.
You also have to make sure that your logic is extremely clear, because we are being asked to absorb complicated ideas simply by listening to you. That doesn’t mean that you should dumb down your ideas , but you do have to make your points concisely and clearly.
Both Romney and Obama know the value of a clear structure and a pithy, well-crafted explanation. Here is one of Romney’s strongest moments, when he explained his five-point plan for creating new jobs:
Notice how his plan has five points, and he numbers each one. Five points is much better than the 59-point plan that he offered during the primary season, because we can digest five points. If you can figure out a way to take your ideas and group them into a few big categories (five, not 59), then we’re much more likely to hear and understand you. Numbering each part of the plan is a terrific rhetorical technique because it lets you hear each distinct piece. If you don’t make each section distinct, it will blur together into mush. Obama knows how to do this as well, but he hesitated more frequently than Romney, reaching for filler sounds (“um”), and sometimes starting his answers with wind-up sentences that didn’t answer the question rather than giving a crisp response. (To be fair, Romney did this as well during the course of the debate, but it was more noticeable when Obama did it because he started off this way.)
Craft a Pithy Statement
The short, well-crafted explanation often carries the day in a debate. Both candidates had some terrific zingers. For Romney: “trickle-down government,” or “You put $90 billion into green jobs. . . that would have hired 2 million teachers.” For Obama: “When I walked into the Oval Office, I had more than a trillion-dollar deficit greeting me. And we know where it came from: two wars that were paid for on a credit card; two tax cuts that were not paid for; and a whole bunch of programs that were not paid for; and then a massive economic crisis.”
There is a danger to the zinger, though. Sometimes the tone can misfire. Aristotle once said, “Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others. There are three things which inspire confidence in the orator’s own character: good sense, good moral character, and goodwill.” If you lob too many petty barbs at your opponent, it affects our impression of your goodwill, and erodes your ability to sound presidential. Both candidates wandered into this danger zone at different points during the night, Romney with accusations of lying and ethical improprieties (“Mr. President, you’re entitled as the president to your own airplane and to your own house, but not to your own facts”; “Look, I’ve got five boys. I’m used to people saying something that’s not always true, but just keep on repeating it and ultimately hoping I’ll believe it. But that is not the case”; the accusation that green energy was funded to benefit businesses “that happened to be owned by people who were contributors to your campaign”), and Obama, particularly at the end of the debate, when the barbs made him sound defensive (Romney’s budget “wasn’t very detailed. This seems to be a trend,” or the quip that Romney telling people to borrow money from their parents to go to college makes him sound out of touch).
One more thought about the pithy statement: Short is better. Both candidates wanted to talk long beyond their allotted time limits, to the irritation of the moderator. An interesting thing happens when the moderator tries to cut you off—the audience stops listening to what you are saying and starts focusing on the power struggle instead. It is better rhetorically to say what you want to say quickly than to continue on for that extra two minutes when people have stopped listening.
Keep Your Cool
It’s a difficult thing to do what these men are doing—answer questions in front of millions of viewers, make complicated points comprehensible, think three steps ahead as you speak, while at the same time keeping your temper under control. Most people couldn’t pull it off as well as Romney and Obama did.
But you could see flashes of irritation in both, which is something they both could work on going into the next debate. Romney, for example, tended to smile dismissively as Obama spoke. He did a great job looking at Obama throughout, which displays power and indicates that he was listening to the points Obama was making, but when Romney smiled, it made him look less respectful of his opponent. It certainly wasn’t the level of sighing, eye-rolling, or watch-glancing that we’ve seen in previous presidential debates (Al Gore, George Bush), but it can turn off an audience.
Obama too had a difficult time keeping his emotions in check at points. In some places he veered into the professorial, lecturing his opponent (“Let’s talk about taxes because I think it’s instructive.”). At other times, he looked down at his podium rather than at Mr. Romney, which appeared dismissive. And he struck the wrong tone when chided the moderator (“I had five seconds before you interrupted me”). One of Obama’s rhetorical challenges is to avoid sounding arrogant, and these moments did not help advance that cause.
Tell a Good Story
Bill Clinton showed us the power of an engaging story during his presidential debates against George H.W. Bush, and both Romney and Obama reached for this powerful rhetorical tool at various times last night. Obama had a powerful moment when he described his grandmother, transforming her into the embodiment of the hardworking American who should be protected by Social Security and Medicare:
Romney also used stories of meeting people on the campaign trail to humanize himself, like his tale of the small business owner who pays 50% of what he earns in taxes.
It’s best to use stories sparingly, though. If you found yourself sighing when the candidates described yet another encounter on the campaign trail with yet another person looking for help—particularly when the story was offered when the moderator was trying to cut the candidate off—then that means the story was overused.
Both candidates pulled out the power when they needed to. You can exhibit power thorough confident, expansive physical gestures, strong eye contact, varying pace, displaying controlled emotion, and appealing to shared values. Watch these power moments as each candidate explains his vision of the purpose of the federal government:
This debate provided some of the most substantive exchanges that we’ve seen during the campaign, and some terrific moments of rhetoric as well. Governor Romney’s win is likely to inspire President Obama to bring his “A” game to the next match-up. It will be well worth watching.