The Presidential Debates: Round 1. Our Analysis


by Peter Watts and Gavin McMahon

The showdown in Denver. To our right, in the red corner, wearing a red tie and US flag pin, Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. To our left, in the blue corner, wearing a blue tie and US flag pin, President Barack Obama. If you are looking for insightful political analysis, if you (still) need to decide who you’re voting for, you’re in the wrong place. Go to CNN for that. If you believe that watching smart, well-prepared, talented people debate issues in the race for the highest office in the land can teach you a thing or two — how to present, pitch for business, sell. Then read on.

The Run-up

Medialand, Punditville and the Twitterverse have been buzzing with expectation. According to polling, the majority of the country has decided, leaving only 4% undecided. Each candidate had similar goals in last night’s debate: Appeal to the undecideds (especially in the battleground states) and motivate the already decided to get up and vote. Two conversations with the American public matter: the one that frames or reframes the way voters see the world, and the one that moves them to action. Obama, carrying a lead, had the goal of doing no harm. Conventional wisdom dictated that Romney had not only do no harm, but to also gain momentum for swinging the race to his favor.

For each candidate, we’ll take an example of the elegant, the obvious, and the ugly.

The Elegant

Gavin on Obama

Obama’s best turf, I thought, was healthcare. But I will single out a particular exchange, on social security and entitlement reform, where the President had his strongest moment. He summarised by looking directly to camera, speaking, and engaging the audience. “If you’re 54 or 55, you might want to listen.” He went on to make a very clear statement, in plain language. “I don’t think vouchers are the right way to go…” contrasting his view of medicare with his opponent’s proposals. He then summed up with a little verbal seasoning, “I have become fond of this term, Obamacare.” That line, and the way he delivered it, drew a little laugh from the moderator and showed his human side. It was content free, but charming and disarming, a little verbal jiu-jitsu on a word that is often used by his opposition as an insult. The lesson for all of us? Always remember who the audience is. Engage them. Be Real.

Peter on Romney

Interestingly, I thought Romney also had his finest moment on healthcare. He also had his worst, which we’ll come to later.

For health care it was Romney’s turn to have the first say. He started with speaking about real people whom he had met and who were suffering. It’s an effective technique, and both candidates used it. Romney’s people however, most always seemed to be living in swing states. He clearly had his audience in mind. From here he moved into what became a signature Romney technique throughout the debate, listing his points. Points 1, 2, 3, and 4. It was point four that brought him squarely to, Small Businesses. This seemed to be Romney’s key talking point, and in most exchanges he logically segued to it. My third reason for picking out this moment was that he then linked across to all the other things the President could have focussed on during his first year in the White House, and by doing so diminished the achievement represented by ObamaCare.

Finally however, the reason Romney gets full points, was that he ended  with talking about his pride in how he created the Massachusetts health care program while he was that state’s Governor, and strongly framed it as being an example of cascading more power to the states.

The Romney team had identified “RomneyCare” as being an achilles heel Obama would go for, and through framing it as States Rights, Romney  took the sting out of some of Obama’s best lines.

That was the elegant. How about some examples of the obvious?

The Obvious

Gavin on Obama

Most of the Obama side of the debate was workmanlike. He answered questions, and then segued swiftly if not elegantly to his talking points. He explained more than connected. A typical moment was his summary of the first segment on taxes.

Peter on Romney

I’ve mentioned Romney’s habit of listing-off his talking points. Those talking points create a logical path of stepping stones, leading to point 4, which normally had something to do with small business. Like all techniques, it shouldn’t be overdone or it becomes obvious, and eventually annoying.

And finally, the ugly, where there was no answer to the question, but a brazen attempt to answer their own question rather than the one that was asked.

The Ugly

Gavin on Obama

Obama started the night poorly answering the jobs question. Prior to the debate, Obama’s strong point on the issue was who would handle taxes better.  He moved the jobs question quickly to a discussion on taxes, and then lost me and I am sure thousands of others in an unclear explanatory monologue of numbers and percentages. In that, he got professorial, and went in to a back and forth he said she said about Romney’s $5 Trillion tax cut. 78% of adults in the U.S* don’t know the difference between a billion and a trillion. It’s just a big number. The lesson to be learned here  — When you’re talking numbers, you have to make them relevant. He got close saying that his opponents bill would add $2,000 to every middle class voter. But pound it home by saying that’s a vacation you can afford. A down-payment on a new car. Putting of fixing up the kitchen for another year.

*Actually it isn’t true! In fact, it’s completely made up. But it seems right. It’s just a big number with lots of zeros. I know one is bigger than the other, but after that, I go into math class mode, and my brain quietly shuts down. Audiences do exactly the same thing.

Peter on Romney

For the ugly with Romney, it’s back to health care and an example of seizing defeat from the jaws of victory. There was a noticeable moment when the President, de-fanged by Romney’s unexpected embrace of the Massachusetts health plan, suddenly had the wind in his sails.

Romney made the mistake of moving the frame to portray the President as having been non-bipartisan during the health care debates, by contrast to the Massachusetts debates. As Romney attempted to represent the Republican-led Congress as being the nice people seeking consensus however, Obama smiled. He was back into his old form. Romney had pushed the frame too far and lost credibility. The secret to good framing is that there needs to be at least a basis of logic in there somewhere, and this frame didn’t!

Our concluding comments

Obama was in ugly mode for most of the debate. When he spoke directly to camera, summed up and concluded, he was good. Unfortunately for him, that was rare. Mostly he took on the role of explaining.

Romney however, had a great evening. He appeared calm, in control, and from his first answer, fully in command of the facts and the frame.

On the downside, he came across as being aggressive at times. When there is a debate with rules about timing, one should really stick to them.

What did you think?
The TwitterVerse certainly had it’s say last night. What did you think to the debate? Post a comment and come join the conversation.

About us:


Gavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.

Peter is a writer, trainer, and speaker on all aspects of Presenting. He coaches business executives in how to be at their best when on their feet. His bi-weekly blog, The Presenters’ Blog, examines core disciplines of public speaking and looks at how those disciplines are being illustrated by new stories around the world. You can follow his Twitter feed on @speak2all


A Note about bias. Neither of us can or will be voting in the US elections, but, like all humans, we have biases. We will try to look at the debates purely from a point of view of speaking, messaging and presenting, to see what the rest of us -— those that will never run for President, can learn.

Comments

  1. Thanks Gavin and Peter, I’m learning a lot from you too, as every child’s dream is to somewhat be a leader, so am I, hopefully planning to lead my people in the future and with these knowledge and the natural ones, I’m being convinced I will make a good leader. Nothing like Obama or Romney but like Emmanuel.

    Keeping in touch Peter.

    • Hi Emmanuel. How great to hear from you. Leadership is a fine art, and having met you in the training room, I can tell that it’s an art you have. Public speaking and debating are a crucial skill, but not the entire picture. I’d like to recommend you another blog to follow (as well as mine and Gavin’s of course!) It’s a blog called Fool With A Plan and hosted by a friend called Broc Edwards. You’ll find it listed on my blogroll. Lots of great ideas about leadership. Keep well Emmanuel, and thanks for the comment!

      • Hey Peter,
        Thanks for replying and it was certainly an honor, sitting under the feet of one of the world’s great presenter. Thanks for the recommendation, I will follow it.

        Best Regards

  2. Thanks, Peter! I forgot (seriously!) to watch the debate and it was nice to get your take on it.

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