Tonight at 9:00 EDT you can watch the first round of the presidential debates between President Obama and Governor Romney. Here is our list of what each candidate should do in order to be at his rhetorical best:
1. Obama should aim for short, punchy answers rather than an overly long explanation.
2. When he makes a point, he needs to give us a concise, powerful “wrap” — the paragraph that puts it all together and drives the point home.
3. While he should show strength, Obama needs to stay away from a haughty or dismissive tone. You may remember this famous blunder in the presidential debate between Al Gore and George Bush, in which Al Gore demonstrates the danger of coming off like a jerk:
Arrogance does not play well.
4. Obama should let us see his likeable qualities (warmth, humor). Letting your personality shine through can make a difference in a debate. Here’s an example of Clinton showing the power of being engaging:
5. He must make a convincing case to the voters that the economy is recovering.
6. He must blunt the charges that his promises have exceeded his performance.
7. He must relax.
1. Romney needs to project warmth to get away from the impression that he is stiff.
2. He needs to sound spontaneous. If you sound like you’ve memorized your answers, they won’t be as convincing. Here’s a memorable debate moment in which Governor Dukakis offers a memorized answer that doesn’t even address the question:
3. Even though Romney should sound spontaneous, he needn’t actually be spontaneous. He has gotten into trouble with quips that fall short (for example, challenging Rick Perry to a $10,000 bet during a primary debate). It’s perfectly fine — smart, even — to plan your zingers in advance. To see how it’s done, watch this famous moment when Ronald Reagan has even his opponent laughing:
4. Romney’s going to need to provide details about his proposals, such as his tax plan.
5. He will need to deal more satisfactorily with the “47 Percent” problem, and convince viewers that he cares about them.
6. He can anticipate some questions about his shifts on various positions (the “etch-a-sketch” problem we have blogged about previously).
7. He needs to be careful not to laugh uncomfortably when he feels uncomfortable. Any person in such a high-pressure situation would naturally feel strain, but the trick is to mask it. Romney’s laugh sometimes operates as a poker tell, letting you know when he feels stressed.
And both candidates would be wise to reach for positive themes rather than negative attack lines. The National Institute for Civil Discourse recently released a study showing that a majority of voters lack confidence in the ability of the government to solve the country’s problems. The most cited reason for the ineffectiveness of government — at 90 percent — was politicians’ unwillingness to work constructively across party lines; at a close second (83 percent) came “lack of respectful dialogue.” When asked about the upcoming presidential debates, 78 percent of the undecided voters participating in the survey said that they are seeking a candidate who commits to working with, rather than finding fault with, the other party. Voters grow weary of attack ads. During the debates, they want constructive dialogue.