On Media Training and Presidential Debates

Public Speaking Rules of Engagement

One of the highest-stakes applications of media training is in public speaking – for both the speaker and the audience.  It’s not like a taped broadcast interview that can be corrected and polished with re-takes and fancy editing.  It’s live.  And you get only once chance to do it right.

Unfortunately for President Obama, his was apparently the prime example of poor media training.  Mitt Romney, in the meantime, was obviously well-prepped, well-trained, and focused like a laser.  So what went wrong for Mr. Obama?

As a media insider, I know what President Obama’s message is.  I know what Mitt Romney’s message is.  And I know the real facts underpinning both messages.  But as a viewer watching the televised face-off from home Wednesday evening, I came away from this debate with a stronger sense of Mitt Romney’s message, and a cloudy sense of what Mr. Obama was trying to say.  Avoiding partisan politics here, I’d like to address a few mistakes that both candidates made, and how proper media training could have enhanced both of their profiles in Wednesday’s crucial debate.

First of all, in a live debate, you need to tailor your message to the parameters you’re given.  When the moderator says “two minutes”, he’s not kidding — it really is just two minutes.  And as a broadcaster, I can tell you that depending on how much or how little you have to say, two minutes can feel like the blink of an eye, or an agonizing eternity.  President Obama has done well in adopting Bill Clinton’s anecdotal style.  Nothing drives a point home more impactfully than a good story supporting the point you’re trying to make.  It really can be the stuff of great campaign speeches.

But this isn’t a campaign speech.  You don’t have an unlimited amount of time to make your point; in fact, you have two minutes.  More often than not, Mr. Obama’s first words were “I’d like to make a few points here.”  BIG MISTAKE.  You don’t have time for four points.  And you certainly don’t have time to start each point with a mini novella about the small businessman you met on the campaign trail in Topeka who has an elderly mother in a nursing home, yadda yadda yadda.  By the time Mr. Obama’s two minutes was up, he hadn’t yet made any point, leaving the viewer confused about what Mr. Obama was trying to say.  Romney, on the other hand, was well-versed in his talking points, and drove each of them home repeatedly and successfully.

Second of all, in a live debate, you have to be ready to think on your feet, and revise your message on the fly to adapt to the organic nature of a constantly changing direction of the discourse.  Both candidates failed here, so anxious to spell out their points, regardless of the question asked or the counter-point they really needed to make.  What this leaves you with is a confused and frustrated viewer, who’s trying to watch what’s supposed to be an organically unfolding and flowing conversation and exchange of ideas between two sides, instead being subjected to a jarring back-and-forth staccato of disparate bullet points.

And speaking of bullet points … use them.  But use them properly.   Two minutes is not enough time for an entire narrative; its only enough time to make a quick counter-point, and quickly spell out, in broad strokes, the points you are trying to make in that particular response.  Think sound bites.  When outlining your arguments, isolate the most salient points and try to boil them down into single short, easily digestible sentences:  “Obamacare will cost America’s seniors their life savings.”  “Mitt Romey’s only experience with jobs has been cutting and offshoring them, not creating them.”  Short, powerful sentences like this will not only get your point across quickly and effectively, they will stay with the viewer long after the debate has ended.

Finally, body language.  Keep a close eye on your posture, movements, and even facial expressions.  Don’t be so self-conscious that you end up paralyzed, a la Al Gore, but don’t give the viewer the unspoken message that you’d rather be somewhere else by glancing at your watch, popping your hip, or crossing your legs.  And as far as your facial expression — at least try to look engaged in what your opponent is saying.  Don’t look down and take notes (Mr. Obama), and don’t stand through every of your opponent’s responses with a condescending smirk (Mitt Romney).

Keeping these points in mind should give you the tools and the confidence to leave the viewers with the message you want to leave them with, regardless of who the pollsters say actually “won” the debate.

Leave a Reply

« return to the blog