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Speaker's Digest

September 2016
Volume 15, Number 8

In this issue:

If Monday night’s presidential debate was a coloring contest, then Hillary stayed completely within the lines and used all the appropriate colors, while Donald stayed outside of the lines, drawing his own pictures, and using whatever colors he wanted, making the cherries brown and the leaves purple. You could not have picked two more contrasting communication styles from the two candidates participating.

This month we share our thoughts and observations on the presentation styles of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as demonstrated during the first presidential debate. As you read, we encourage you to keep our ultimate goal in mind—to show how our readers can learn from watching these two speakers, and on how we would coach them to communicate even more effectively.

Observing the First Presentational Debate

The first debate in the 2016 Presidential election is now in the books. We tried to watch this debate with an eye and ear not so much toward WHAT these two candidates were saying, but HOW they were saying it. Their differences were easy to spot. In one corner, dressed in red, stood former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—experienced, controlled, filtered and ultimately, we sense, political. In the opposite corner, wearing a dark suit, stood civilian Donald Trump, the controversial Republican nominee—spontaneous, emotional, unfiltered, and decidedly apolitical.

And the event featured a moderator, NBC News’ Lester Holt, who wanted to keep things moving, keep the candidates as honest as possible, and yet desperately wanted to avoid becoming news himself. So he chose not to assert himself, giving Trump a lot of room to improvise, which sometimes was fascinating.

If you turned off the sound, you’d begin to see how differently Trump and Clinton acted in terms of posture, facial expression, gestures and body language. Turn the sound back up, and you’d hear how differently each used intonation, emotion, word play, and volume to get their point across. (For more on this topic, click here for an article by a New York Times reporter who was assigned to mute the sound for the entire the debate and write about his insights.)

Some general observations:

For the most part, Ms. Clinton seemed well-prepared for the debate, showed confidence in her material, and answered the questions she was asked within the timeline she was given, while Mr. Trump seemed to be reacting to the topics as they came up. He often jumped in as she was speaking, spoke over the moderator, spoke beyond his timeline and interrupted her to make a point.

Clearly we were watching a debate between, on the one side, a seasoned politician whom we have seen multiple times in this exact same one-on-one format, one who was experienced in discussing policy, politics, process and ideas. On the other side was a relative novice to this format, though certainly no novice to public speaking or media appearances. We have to consider him a rookie in this two-hour, two-person debate, yet he gets no handicap due to his status as a newcomer. Despite his inexperience, we note that he took pride in having spent the past weeks traveling around the country meeting voters, as opposed to being holed-up in a conference room preparing for the evening’s debate.

One interesting element in televised, one-on-one debates is the use of split screens, so you can clearly see the candidate who is speaking and the one who’s listening. For the most part, Hillary stood still, kept her face focused, maintaining a confident look, sometimes smiling while he talked. Trump, on the other hand, showed many different facial expressions as he listened to her, often tilting his head to one side, pursing his lips, closing his eyes, moving close to the mic and at times even whispering into it. Was he expressing frustration or being theatrical?

Other things we noticed:

Word choices. We've known for some time that Trump talks in great platitudes. “Our country is in a big, big mess,” he said. “There are many, many bad people out there,” he added when talking about crime. Contrast this to the more nuanced words and phrases that Hillary uses. He says HUGE, she says “significant.” He also emphasizes those words when he says them, and then repeats them over and over. Consider this exchange: “Look at the mess that we’re in. Total mess. We’re a total mess. The Middle East is a total mess.” There’s no question what he thinks when compared to Hillary’s talking about “significant problems,” which communicates very little. Which one comes across more clearly to the listener? Which message sinks in more deeply?

Simplicity vs. Complexity. It’s obvious that being president is a complex job that will require a complex understanding of issues and ways to articulate them. Certainly we can understand why Hillary chose to explain many of the issues of the debate in quite a bit of depth. Yet she continues to struggle to sound conversational, partially because she tries so hard to explain her complex thinking. Contrast that to the simplicity of the thoughts that Trump conveyed. You could clearly hear and see how he felt on issues, whether you agreed with him or not.


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Learning from Clinton and Trump

What Hillary Clinton Did Well:

Maintained composure. A post-debate article in the New Yorker noted that she refused to be bullied and lose her cool, and we agree. She kept the same limited series of expressions and small gestures, which kept her looking polished, but not particularly animated. (But see below for her memorable use of a move becoming known as the “Hillary Shimmy.”)

Smiled. Ms. Clinton has been criticized for not smiling enough. But on Monday evening, things changed. When her opponent spoke, she smiled. When he criticized her, she smiled. Her smile helped show that she was comfortable, confident, and happy to be engaging with her opponent, and happy to be talking with the American people. It’s hard to see, from Donald’s plethora of facial expressions, whether he was feeling the same.

If we coached Hillary, what would we suggest?

Shorter and simpler. The less you say, and the more clearly you say it, the more memorable you’ll be. We’d recommend that she focus on simplifying her message for the average voter, and mix in more expression and animation. The one time she used simplicity well was when she combined it with repetition, criticizing Trump for paying zero in taxes. “Zero for troops, zero for vets, zero for schools, zero for health care.”

Better eye connection. We noticed Hillary’s tendency to glance down a lot when she was speaking, seemingly unsure of where to look. She often talked to her lectern, toward the floor and to the side. Many times she did NOT seem comfortable looking at her opponent when she was driving home a strong point, while he seemed happy to look straight at her, particular when criticizing her. We’d coach her to look him in the eye, even if it feels confrontational, and to make sure she finishes her statements before glancing down at her notes.

Stop hedging. Hillary needs to eliminate the phrase “I think that…” from her repertoire. When asked a question about security, she responded: “How do we protect America? I think that…” WE think that’s a weak way to begin a response, Ms. Clinton. Better to say, “How do we protect America? We get tough on gun control now!”

What Donald Trump Did Well:

Emphasis and repetition. He uses simple adjectives and verbs, repeats them, and comes back to them. This played out especially well during the first part of the debate when he talked about how he would handle trade deals differently. Something isn’t simply a bad deal, it’s the “worst deal ever made by any country ever!” We got his message loudly and clearly.

Self-promotion. Donald talked about his income, his businesses, his relationships, his family, all with great pride. It might not be what everyone should do, but it’s clearly how Trump likes to roll, and it has certainly distinguished him as a candidate.

Gestures. The telecast put both candidates literally into a box on the screen. Trump’s gestures frequently moved outside of the boundaries of the screen, making him seem bigger than life. Gestures emphasize your presence, they convey your passion, and they show that you are engaged.

If we coached Donald, what would we suggest?

Complete his thoughts. We like his use of repetition, but he goes overboard, piles onto his message and doesn’t seem to know when to end it. Mr. Trump goes on too long and starts to wear out the audience. He needs to learn how to give shorter answers. Period.

Focus on his audience. Some post-event pundits noted that Trump was knocked off his script when he reacted to something his opponent said, which meant that he didn’t get to talk about immigration, the Clinton Foundation, or other topics that may have helped him. He needs to remember who his audience is, look at them and speak to them at regular intervals, rather than wasting his time by reacting to his opponent.

Stand up straight. Unlike during his convention speech, when he stood tall and looked commanding, Donald spent much of the debate leaning on his lectern. This stance made one shoulder stick up in the air, and made Mr. Trump look annoyed and angry. Even if that’s what he was feeling, he looks much more confident and presidential with better posture. We’d have him stand on a piece of flipchart paper or bubble-wrap during rehearsal, and help him see the impact it makes when he stands up straight.


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The Hillary Shimmy

Actually, there was one instance where Ms. Clinton stepped out of the box and took a play from Mr. Trump’s playbook. It was after he had angrily told Hillary that she didn’t have the temperament to be president because of an instance in which she was “totally out of control.” In response, she smiled and exclaimed: “Woo, OK,” while wiggling her shoulders, a move that has already been turned into a meme (going viral with the tag line “perfect for when you’re winning at life”) and is becoming widely known as the “Hillary Shimmy.” Google it. Or click here to see it for yourself.

What did you think of the debate and the candidates’ presentation styles? Please share your thoughts with us, and enjoy all the hoopla leading up to the election. See you next month! Thanks for reading. Enjoy the rest of your summer, and we’ll be back soon. Pass it on!


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