As the presidential debates get under way, history suggests what thecandidates say may not be as important as how they say it.
The first presidential debate to be televised took place in 1960 betweenJohn F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. Reactions to this debate changedpresidential politics forever, says Kellie Roberts, head coach of theUniversity of Florida’s Speech and Debate Team.
“People who listened on the radio thought Nixon won,” Roberts tellsWebMD. But those who watched on television declared Kennedy the winner. He hadbetter posture and “looked presidential,” she says. “People becamemore aware of the importance of how things look, and that has affectedstrategies in debates ever since.”
The Impact of Presidential Debates
Debates rarely sway voters who have already made a tentative choice, saysLarry J. Sabato, PhD, director of the University of Virginia’s Center forPolitics. “But sometimes,” he tells WebMD, “if one candidate doesparticularly well or commits an embarrassing gaffe, a debate can tilt theundecided voters strongly in one direction. There is no question that thedebates helped elect John Kennedy in 1960, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reaganin 1980, and Bill Clinton in 1992.”
What is special about presidential debates, says executive coach CarolKinsey Goman, PhD, is that they offer a chance to glimpse the candidatesunscripted. In scripted speeches, “body language cues as well as rhetoricare honed by coaches,” says Goman, who is the author of The NonverbalAdvantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work. In debates,”people are much more vulnerable and their body cues are much moreavailable.”
The Role of Body Language
Ideally, debates “should be all about the content of the message,”Roberts says. “However, research shows about 70% of our message comes fromwhat we do nonverbally — posture, the use of space, how we use our voice, howwe gesture and use our bodies.”
These signals provide emotional cues to back up verbal arguments, Gomantells WebMD. Whether you are a business executive promoting a vision for yourcompany or a politician promoting a vision for your country, body language andrhetoric must be in sync. “If your words are saying, ‘trust me,’ but yourbody language is not, you’ve just derailed your message.”
With that in mind, WebMD consulted with speech and body language experts tocreate a debate scorecard. Use it to determine which candidate you thinkcommunicates most effectively in each debate.
As you watch the first presidential debate, give each candidate a score of 1to 5 in the following categories. Be sure to subtract a point if a candidatemakes any of the moves listed as “deductions.”
Base your grade not on whether you agree with a candidate’s message, but onhow clear that message is. Tim Koegel, a media coach and author of thebest-selling book The Exceptional Presenter, says brevity is essential.”The more concise, the better,” he tells WebMD. “Candidates shouldhave two or three key points for every topic — three is the maximum [viewers]can remember.”
Illustrating key points with quick stories.
Long-winded or rambling answers.
Obvious gaffes, such as misstating a well-known fact.
2. Speech Pattern
“The beauty of great presentations and delivery is that everyone isdifferent,” Koegel says. Answers don’t need to follow a specific pattern,but should sound unrehearsed. Rhythm and pacing should be natural, “likethey’re having a conversation.”
Speech patterns also suggest how knowledgeable and confident a candidateis about any given topic. When someone takes longer than usual to respond orpeppers an answer with “um” and “uh,” he or she is probablyuncomfortable with the subject matter. “The ums can affect undecidedvoters,” Koegel tells WebMD.
Awkward pauses and filler, such as “ummm.”
3. Tone of Voice
“Passion must come through,” Koegel says, noting that passion tops thelist of characteristics people use to describe effective speakers.
Roberts, the University of Florida debate coach, adds a caveat –candidates should convey emotion, such as passion or anger, without going toofar. She recalls democratic candidate Howard Dean’s infamous battle cry duringthe 2004 primaries. “We’re looking at [electing] the leader of the freeworld,” Roberts says. “They have to stay in control.”
Other pitfalls include a condescending tone or unusually high pitch, whichsuggests stress. “Watch for a rise in pitch at the end of asentence,” Koegel says. This makes a candidate’s statement sound more likea question and undermines the point being made.
Monotone voice that expresses no passion.
Angry tone that comes off as a rant or bluster.
Rising pitch at the end of sentences.
Standing up tall with the head held high is essential for two reasons, saysGoman, the body language expert. “It sends a positive message to the brainand gives you a psychological advantage. Also, you do look taller,” whichis an advantage in itself.
But there’s more to posture than standing tall. “If you see someonestanding with their legs a little apart, their arms loosely by their sides,those are gestures of being confident and relaxed,” Goman says. Legstogether and arms stiffly at the side send a signal that something iswrong.
[Editor’s note: When scoring on this topic, a little context is necessary.Keep in mind that John McCain has limited mobility of his arms becauseof wounds he suffered as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.]
Leaning is also an important clue, Goman tells WebMD. People tend to leantoward questions they like and away from questions they don’t like, so watchfor any shifts.
Slouching or resting on the podium.
Standing with the legs together and arms stiffly at the sides.
Leaning away from the person asking the question.
Gesturing is a natural way to enhance speech, Koegel tells WebMD.Candidates will use their hands more freely on topics they are comfortablewith. When they feel nervous, they may keep the hands within an imaginary boxin front of the torso.
“Most people have been reading body cues since the time they wereborn,” Goman says. The candidates know this, so many of their gestures maybe rehearsed. For example, placing the hands flat on the lectern or table, andarranging the fingertips into a steeple can help convey confidence in aparticular point.
Goman suggests recording the debates and looking for”microgestures” — smaller movements that give more authentic clues tothe candidates’ mindsets. In particular, she says touching the mouth or nosewhile speaking can suggest some type of deception.
Open palm gestures, which signal authenticity.
Unnatural or stiff gestures.
Wild or over-the-top gestures.
Gripping the podium tightly.
Pointing or finger-wagging.
Touching the mouth or nose while speaking.
6. Facial Expressions
The face is one of the best places to read stress. According to Goman, aperson’s blink rate increases dramatically under stress. The mouth becomes dry,so watch for a candidate licking the lips. Biting the lip, on the other hand,suggests a person does not fully believe what he or she is saying.
To convey authenticity, candidates must remember to smile. “It’s helpful tosmile wherever appropriate,” Koegel says. “A smile comes across asrelaxed and comfortable.” But the smile had better be sincere, Goman adds.”A real smile crinkles the eyes and has a warm feeling,” while a fakesmile makes people recoil.
Again, Goman suggests recording the debates and watching for”microexpressions.” “Look for those tiny expressions of disgust oranger or fear — it happens before the conscious mind can say that’s not a goodthing to do.” Watch for these expressions not only in the candidate who isspeaking, but also in the candidate who is listening.
Stoic face that reveals no emotion.
Inappropriate or fake smiling.
Poor eye contact.
Blinking more often than usual.
Scowling or rolling the eyes.
Licking or biting the lips.
According to Goman, if one candidate walks over to his or her opponent’sspace to shake hands at the end of the debate, this is icing on the cake. Thespace-invading candidate has “taken control and put the other candidate ata disadvantage.”
And the Winner Is?
Well, you of course will judge that, and preference will certainly weighinto it. Still, WebMD will check back with the experts the day after the firstdebate. We’ll ask them to rate the candidates’ performances in each of thesecategories.
Ready to start keeping score? Print our debate scorecard.