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3 Keys to Decoding Presidential 'Debates'


Today marks the start of the "silly season" in the United States with the first presidential debate of the 2016 election cycle. This one features the top 10 Republican candidates.

I was a debater in college and I have worked to prepare leaders for debates, so I watch them with professional interest. 

I'm not a partisan writer, I only discuss the debates to illustrate leader communications strategy and tactics in a digital world. I'm not going to discuss specific candidates, but rather what to watch for tonight and in future debates.

Not a Debate

The sad truth is, tonight’s presidential debate here in the U.S. is NOT a debate.

Even though the candidates might have opposing philosophies, constituents and world views, they will not be debating.

There will be little argumentation, where proposals are put forth and evidence and analysis is provided. Instead, you will hear a series of sound bites and prepared messages designed to resonate with and motivate key constituents.

Partly, they will be targeting their respective political bases to gain support and partly they will be looking to sway  voters who remain undecided.

With this in mind, here are the three keys to decoding a presidential debate:

1)   “Pivots” are King

In these so-called debates, you will notice that the politicians will be looking to deliver the messages, regardless of the topic of the question they are asked.

How do they get from the question to the messages they want to deliver? They use a “pivot,” a quick transitional statement that seems to address the topic but quickly moves in the direction they want to go.  In media training, I refer to this as “bridging.”

For example, a candidate might be asked about his view of “illegal immigration.” If the politician wants to avoid the topic, he might say: “of course, illegal immigration is important, but we have to remember that the immigrants are coming to this country to find JOBS. [PIVOT!]

“My whole focus is on creating JOBS. It’s outrageous that Americans are suffering with persistent unemployment. My plan will create 100 million new high-paying jobs to get Americans back to work”…and so on.

See how that works? The cleaner the transition, the more believable the candidate will be. If people notice an abrupt transition, they will be unhappy that the candidate failed to answer the question. With a smooth transition, the question will be forgotten and message will have been delivered.

2)   “Sound bites” are queen

“Sound bites” have moved into the general lexicon. I hear kids talking about sound bites. But for those who don’t know, sound bites are brief, usually memorable lines that make the key points and are easy to digest. They are generally 7 to 15 seconds long. They're like Tweets, about 140 characters.

These will be broadcast widely by traditional and social media, including Facebook and Twitter.

Sound bites will be the most lasting and memorable part of the debates. I heard an announcer on a local radio station today apologizing for so often quoting Ronald Reagan from his 1980 debate with Democratic incumbent president Jimmy Carter.

When Carter would gave a detailed explanation attacking Reagan's proposals, Reagan simply smiled and shook his head and said, “there you go again.” In his successful campaign against Carter, Reagan also used the line that has been over used ever since, “are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Thirty years later those sound bites are still being quoted.

Whether we like it or not, we live in a sound bite culture and these Twitter-like statements will help to determine whether a candidate scored points and is seen as a “winner” or a “loser” of the debate.

3)   Presidential impressions win

In the end, the real “winner” will be the candidate that leaves the strongest “presidential” impression.

For presentations, I coach our clients to understand that few people in the audience will remember what you said, or what you did. They’ll remember how you made them feel.

In these debates, barring a horrendous performance, those who are committed to party or candidate will believe their candidate won the debate and that the opposing candidate lost.

The independents, however, those who are truly struggling with their choice, will make their decision based on an overall impression. Yes, they will believe they are weighing the evidence, the policies, and the messages.

But, ultimately, they’ll be assessing who seems more suited to the job.

They will be comparing the choices and deciding, from their guts, who is right to lead the nation into the future.

And that question is really about trust. The candidate who inspires trust will win the debate, win their votes and be on the way to winning the election.

However lacking in substance, these debates offer lessons for leaders and others in the workplace. How you present yourself and your ideas, especially against opposition, is critical. Being clear, authentic and trustworthy are still the most reliable ways to convince your most important audiences.

What Do You Think?

Please tell us in the comments: Is this the way the U.S. should be electing Presidents? For those in other countries, what is your impression?

Special Note: I have conversations on my Facebook page. Would you mind doing me a favor and check it out and "Like it" if you like it?  ;-)

Thanks, John

Photo Credit: DonkeyHotey

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John Millen

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