To: Democratic Presidential Candidates Participating in the July 30-31 CNN Debates
Fr: EMS Communications, Publishers of Speaker’s Digest ()
Re: Preparing for Next Week’s Debates
Cc: Readers of Speaker’s Digest and the EMS Communications Blog
[Closed circuit to our regular readers: Though we don’t expect you’ll be in a ten-person debate in front of a national TV audience anytime soon, you will find yourself in situations in which you can certainly apply the tips you’ll read about here.]
The good folks at CNN are promising us a 20-candidate field (10 on each night) for the presidential debates coming up on July 30 and 31. With a handful of days left to prepare, we wanted to share some suggestions based on our observations during the first set of debates. So if you think these sound like ridiculous scenarios, keep in mind that we are literally discussing things we saw from real candidates for president. Let’s get right to it…
Get your eye contact right. The most important job for candidates, particularly at this point in the race, is to reach voters. In the first series of debates, all candidates tended to look directly at the moderators—the ones asking the questions—when answering. A few times, candidates looked at other candidates when specifically addressing or challenging them. Look at the voters instead! This means directing eye contact to home viewers by looking at the camera with the red light on, and by connecting with the large audiences that will be watching in person. If you feel like you need to address the moderators directly, you can begin and/or end your remarks by looking at them, but make sure you prioritize the audience that will really make a difference for you at the ballot box.
Prioritize your best idea, and DON’T speed up to beat the clock. The clock plays a big role with so many candidates vying for attention. But talking too fast is always a losing proposition. Your audience will forget everything you said if you speak faster than they can listen. Instead, prioritize one main point per answer, say it in a few different ways, and be sure to pause to let it sink in. Less, in this case, is much, much more when you’re trying to attract supporters! And while you’re at it…
Get to the point! Moderator: “What is your position on X, Y and Z?” Candidate #1: “Well, you know that I’ve been a Senator from the great state of __ for 14 years, and prior to that, I was a business leader known for taking on big challenges, so I’m really glad you asked me that question. X, Y and Z are going to be critical issues in this campaign, and I’m dedicated to…”
Candidate #2: “I’m totally in favor of passing legislation in support of X, Y and Z. Here’s why…” In this scenario, candidate #1 wasted 30 seconds, or half the allotted time, mumbling. Candidate #2 gave an answer in ten words. Which candidate will likely need to speed up to get their whole answer in by the buzzer?
The more you say “I” the less people care. In politics, we know that one individual rarely accomplishes anything. There are staff members, colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and constituents who play vital roles in everything you do. So quit saying “I lowered taxes” or “I passed legislation.” Imagine it this way: each time you say “I”, you dismiss the efforts of others and lose the attention of a million listeners. Is that your goal?
Always let your vision be your guide. (Apologies to Jiminy Cricket.) This debate will offer each candidate an opportunity to show your vision for the future, yet most candidates couldn’t stop talking about the past in last month’s debates. These debates are job interviews, and while past credentials are relevant, it’s really important to help the audience visualize you as presidential timber. Show us glimpses of the person you want us to elect. That’s a more inspiring approach than listing your resume, and slows the “I-I-I” momentum, too.
Looking determined and confident doesn’t mean frowning and yelling. The angry face is seldom a good look for anyone seeking to make friends. Yet raised voices and upside down smiles were the default modes for a number of candidates. Vary your volume, your intonation and your approach. If you raise your voice during your entire answer, you’ve given your audience no way to recognize your priorities. If you need to raise your voice for part of your response, be sure to lower it at a different point. If you need to express anger, be sure to allow yourself at a different point to express excitement or inspiration as well.
Pause, pause, and pause again to make sure your ideas sink in. The cost in precious seconds will be outweighed by the voters you impress. If you don’t pause, your supporters will have a hard time catching up with you, and they may decide to support someone else in the field.
Finally, to all the candidates: as we always say, “Be yourself…unless you’re a jerk. In that case, be someone else!” Good luck to all in next week’s debate.