Please note: If you are looking for yet another assessment of the content of last night’s debate, please look elsewhere. This focuses on tactic.
Here are the lessons we can learn from last night’s debate:
- Be confident. This carries into many of the points below, but is the most essential trait. It is hard for others to trust in you, if you do not trust in yourself.
- Have Passion. This is one of the strongest emotions. As put by Rochefoucauld (English translation) from his experience in the French court: “The simplest man with passion will be more persuasive than the most eloquent without.”
- Always smile. You are a winner and should appear as such. Towards the end of the debate, it is very clear who is happy to be on stage and who is miserable. Do not appear defeated or the audience will consider you as such. Watch each candidate’s expressions as they listen to their opponent.
- Be concise. Although stories can be very effective in speeches, with their appropriate timing and punctuation, in debates only keep relative details. Any other detail detracts from your point. We do not need to know you grew up with your grandmother or when she died, we need to know how hard she worked, how independent she was, and how Medicare today would impact her. Having one story to continually reference, as Obama later does, can be useful and make an issue relatable, but that story needs to be tailored to its purpose. Mitt Romney effectively uses concise story telling to support his argument on the affordable care act: “It comes from my experience. I was in New Hampshire and a woman came to me and said, ‘Look I can’t afford insurance for myself or my son. I met a couple in Appleton, Wisconsin and they said, ‘we’re thinking of dropping our insurance, we can’t afford it. And the number of small businesses that I have gone to that are saying they are dropping insurance because they can’t afford it. The cost of healthcare is just prohibitive.” Here he references only the relevant supporting details, showing that individuals and small businesses are impacted by healthcare costs.
- Follow the rules. If you do not follow the rules, you are seen as a cheater. Listen to the mediator. If the mediator says you are out of time, you are out of time. If it is not your turn to speak, do not speak. Acting as if you are above the rules shows neither humility nor respect.
- Vary eye contact. When you are at the punch line, look the camera right in the eye and say it with chutzpah. This was most effectively used in the closing speeches.
- Organize your points. Take a deep breath. Gather your thoughts instead of jumping in unprepared and unorganized. Just because you have talking points does not mean they fit in this moment of the debate or in the context anymore. For instance, Romney states he supports well thought-through regulation and that he wants to repeal Dodd-Frank and replace it. Obama misaddresses this comment and references pre-debate statements about repealing Dodd-Frank as a way to show Romney’s disinterest in any regulation. This talking point needed to be modified in order to become an effective response.
- Remain on message. In his discussion seven minutes into the debate, Obama addresses Medicaid, schools, oil, tax breaks, companies going overseas within his allotted two minutes. It is better to focus on one area and explain yourself fully than lose the audience in various topics. This leads to my next point on how to combat this tactic.
- Stay Engaged. When Obama spoke of various subjects, Romney was able to address each point because he took notes, which he referenced in his rebuttal. As your opponent runs out of time, jot down a primitive outline of key topics you will discuss so you have some structure before your clock starts ticking.
- Remember your audience. If you are going to talk about Bowles-Simpson, make sure you can briefly explain what it is and how it relates to your argument. How many people in the audience know the details of Bowles-Simpson? You want your audience to be able to follow your points. When Mitt Romney discusses his program for Medicare in which seniors can choose between public and private sector programs, he very simply lays out his views. Instead of bogging down the audience in technicalities, he holds their hand in understanding his philosophies. Make sure your audience can follow you.
- Make comparisons. Help people relate to facts and statistics. For example, Obama mentions oil companies receive $2.8 billion in tax cuts every year. Romney successfully takes this number and makes it relative. He points out that Obama gave $90 billion to companies in green energy; that is 50 years of oil tax cuts or 2 million new teachers.
- Use strong references to support your views. When discussing Medicare, Obama says he does not support Romney’s view, but strengthens his argument by saying AARP also disapproves of Romney’s plan. Furthermore, to show you are not buried in your party’s back pocket, referencing great ideas from the other side can be tactful, such as Ronald Reagan (by Obama) or Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff (by Romney). In addition, Romney also took the Cleveland Clinic, originally mentioned by Obama, to show his own point. If your opponent has already established the legitimacy of something, using it to describe your point is more effective.
- Practice and prepare. Go in front of the mirror, no matter how awkward that may seem, you need to feel comfortable working through the twists and turns of your arguments, finding where there might be dead ends or missteps to your point. This will build your confidence and trust in yourself. On healthcare, Romney had a list of points; his presentation is smooth, without linguistic slipups. You can tell he knew this would be a key topic, prepared an outline, and practiced his two-minute presentation on the issue.
If anyone wants to improve their debate tactics, I would recommend reading “Getting to Yes: Negotiation Agreement Without Giving In” by Roger Fisher and William Ury.
Please post any thoughts/comments for discussion below: