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How to Learn from Political Debates

Whether you're a Democrat, a Republican, or Independent, watching the debates can be a useful exercise in improving your public speaking.

By
Lisa B. Marshall,
September 16, 2015

Political debate time is upon us and, as a communications expert, I find it so much fun and informative. I remember enjoying looking at political debates while in school, purely from a communication perspective. You can learn so much about communicating effectively. And this time of year always reminds me of the first televised presidential debate, the Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960. Although I wasn't alive to see it live, I did study it. The interesting part was that people who only listened on the radio thought Nixon won, but those that watched on television thought Kennedy won.

Why?  Watch it for yourself. Television was new technology, and as we are presently living through an explosion of new technology, you probably realize that those individuals or companies that use these new technologies quickly will have a distinct advantage over the latecomers. This is what happened in the debate: Kennedy clearly had a better grasp of using TV to his advantage than Nixon did.

First, Nixon refused makeup to improve his complexion and cover his five o'clock shadow, but Kennedy willingly accepted the advice of the TV experts and allowed the makeup. At times, Nixon didn’t look into the camera, making him look shifty or untrustworthy, while Kennedy always kept his eyes on the camera, giving the impression he was looking at the audience. And the hot lights eventually caused a sheen on Nixon’s lip, which made him look nervous or unprepared. Then there was his suit. Nixon had recently had surgery and lost some weight, so his suit didn’t fit as well, and he chose a color that blended into the background. Kennedy wore a well-fitted suit in a strong, dark color that made him stand out boldly in the black-and-white TV screen of 1960. Nixon was a man who had adopted speaking skills that were perfect for radio—but they were a bust for TV. 

But let us turn to talking points. Nixon won on sheer force of argument, which is proven by the approval of the radio audience. And words are clearly important. In this age of instant communication, words are barely out of the mouth of a celebrity or politician before they’re transmitted around the world, and it’s hard to take them back. So public speakers, especially very prominent ones, have to be prepared with clear, concise, powerful speeches. But they also have to be prepared to deal with difficult questions, technical difficulties, and possibly even heckling!

But the biggest take-away from the Kennedy-Nixon debate? Delivery trumps content! You could have the best message in the world, but if your looks or mannerisms or tone of voice turn people off, you’ve lost. Another politician who learned that the hard way was Al Gore. His eye-rolling and loud, impatient sighs during the debate with George W. Bush painted him as a rude man and lost him points he never earned back.

So watch the debates—not only for the important information they may provide regarding public policy, but also for the lessons they can teach you, both about being prepared and about thinking on your feet. Record them and consider what candidates do right. Consider what they do wrong, and what you don’t like. When concentrating on body language, you may even want to turn the sound off. Then see if you can incorporate a powerful new delivery skill that you see a candidate use.  If you do this, these election debates will hold even greater benefit for you. Let me know what you notice and learn!

This is Lisa B. Marshall helping you to lead and influence.  If you'd like to learn more about compelling communication, I invite you to read my bestselling books, Smart Talk and Ace Your Interview, and listen to my other podcast, Smart Talk. As always, your success is my business

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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