Seven points for powerful debating

The Presidential Debates 2012 have valuable pointers for sales presenters

by Peter Watts

If you cross chess with WWF wrestling, throw in battle strategy and forensics, then mix in the disciplines of public speaking, you get debate.

Based on what we’ve just seen during the 2012 Presidential Debates, here is The Presenters’ Blog list of the top seven things to be aware of in order to raise your debating game:

Answer the question on your own terms

During the debates we saw enough framing to raise an Amish barn. Time after time, both candidates pivoted debate questions around to their own talking points. For example, when President Obama was asked about Libya during the Foreign Policy Debate, he replied that the solution was all about “nation building”. Under this heading he included education, health, and a stable economy, and from there he pivoted neatly to how that was exactly what he was delivering to America. It might seem transparent when you see it written down, but on the debate floor it works. It’s time honored and essential.

You are NEVER above the fray

Trying to keep a lofty distance above all this messy debating is a strategy that never works, as President Obama so heftily discovered during the first 2012 debate. If you are on the stage, prepare to engage. You can show a profusion of emotional responses, as Joe Biden so fabulously did during the VP’s debate, but you can never show nose-in-the-air aloof.

Don’t whine

There may be debate rules in place, but if you think your opponent is overstepping them, then tell that straight to your opponent, straight to their face. The moderator will then step in to support you. Mitt Romney however made the mistake of taking his complaints direct to the debate moderator instead. The effect was of a small child running to Mom or Dad and whining that the other kid wasn’t playing nice.

Have a key message

Always have a key message and return to it as frequently as possible by as many routes as possible. Governor Romney showed us a masterclass in key messaging during Debate One, when somehow, almost all lines of discussion seemed to lead directly to “small business”.

Techniques work well when only used once

During Debate Two, we commented on the use of rhetorical techniques. The Romans called them the “hidden darts”; fabulously powerful, but only effective when kept, as the name suggests, hidden.

If you use a technique of rhetoric once only, then it will sit in your speech as an elegant jewel. If you use the same technique twice, the audience will recognize the repetition. Use it a third time, and not only will the audience recognize it, but your opponent will be ready with a kill shot.

During the first debate, Governor Romney used the technique of listing-off the points he would discuss during his answer. There would always four points in his list, and the fourth would be the pivot-point back to Small Business. By Debate Three, President Obama was ready for him. As Romney finished the list, predictably landing on “small business”, the President fired-back with a list of his own, detailing everything the Governor had ever done that had harmed small business, and then neatly pivoting back around to the President’s own talking points. Aim, fire, dead.

Planning and preparation are everything

More than anything else, the debate pointed up the importance of not only planning your own strategy, but also mapping out the likely strategy of your opponent. If we take the example of the President’s Debate Three kill shot to Governor Romney’s pivot on small-business, that kill-shot was the result of close observation of the Governor’s techniques, and where he would most likely attempt to go with them.

Keep it current

Under that same prep and planning heading, we see the importance of being up to date, not just on your own press releases, but  on your opponent’s. On the day of Debate Three, the Romney camp started making noise about increased spending on the navy. The Obama camp anticipated the topic would be dropped into the debate by Romney, and what was the planned response?

It was the brilliant “horses and bayonets” retort that went on to become the night’s most tweeted comment.

The Third Presidential Debate 2012. Analysis and Commentary. And Who Won?

by Peter Watts and Gavin McMahon

Up till tonight, it was one round each.

Both candidates had proved themselves. Governor Romney had shown himself an admirable debater when the battleground was formed of facts. He had shown himself credible as the next CEO of United States of America Inc. President Obama meanwhile had delivered the debater who could stir the passions. His greatest challenge had been to overcome his alter-ego as Professor and deliver Presidential. He achieved it.

That’s not to say it’s all been bouquets. There have been brickbats too. We’ve had the snoozefest of President Obama’s comatose comments during the Domestic Affairs Debate, and were then entertained by the binders full of blunders that opened during the Town Hall Meeting.

Tonight was the final round……

So who flourished in Florida?
Did the Sunshine State shimmer on someone’s parade?
Who was….. the strongest debater?

Gavin:
I’ll start by saying this wasn’t a fair fight. There’s a big difference between knowing your subject and learning your subject. I’d imagine that this was the debate Governor Romney looked forward to the least, and President Obama the most. Talking about action and fact is a strong position when things are going well. Obama generally did this. Words like we did and we are, are stronger than we should. The subject of foreign policy is high ground for Obama, and he had it all night.  Romney frequently had to make his positions seem the same, but with woulda-coulda-shoulda differences. To which Obama could frequently respond, with variations like, “I am pleased that you are now endorsing our policy.”

Obama practiced debate ju-jitsu all night — which he did very well. In response to Romney opinion about increasing the size of the Navy, Obama responded with a clever and well positioned rejoinder, “You mentioned the Navy and that we have fewer ships than we had in 1916, well Gov we also have few horses and bayonets.” It was a nice rhetorical comparison that made Romney seem outdated and misinformed.

He did it again when he compared his first foreign trips to Romney’s (which have been documented as gaffe-prone) “I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum, to remind myself of the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable.”

These and other comparisons let Obama credibly claim the central question of the night. “The central question is who is going to be credible to our allies and enemies.” In debating, pitching, selling, if you can define the frame by which the decision will be made, you win.

Peter:
Tonight could have gone either way, and when Governor Romney won the coin toss to go first, a subtle part of the power balance moved into his favor. When the first question turned out to be on Libya, which is currently the weakest topic for the President, the balance moved decisively into his favor. This was a chance to get his opponent on the back foot from the word go.

So what went so very wrong for the Governor?

To understand why Mitt Romney found himself so frequently on the ropes tonight, it’s necessary to look back over the past 12 months. There has indeed been a degree of the etch-a-sketch to many of his pronouncements, which in fairness, has been thrust upon him due to the necessity of initially appealing to one electorate during the GOP primaries, and then having to broaden that appeal to a wider and more disparate national audience. The President seized upon that weakness and ripped it apart live on national television.

The first signs of trouble were concealed in the early Obama sound-bite that America needs “strong and steady leadership, not wrong and reckless leadership”. This would turn out to be Obama’s key message, returning to it frequently as he laid out examples of Mitt Romney’s changed positions on multiple issues.

Romney’s response was weak, but also underlies his debate strategy. Referring to himself, he stated: “Attacking me is not on the agenda.” It was an attempt to rise above the debate. It was an attempt to strike a tone of consensus. All it achieved was waving a rather large white flag into the face of an already charging bull.

Both candidates frequently pivoted away from the subject of Foreign Affairs and headed back into Domestic Affairs. One such pivot yielded what for me was one of the President’s finest lines: “You seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.” This line also set the President up well for the first of several pivots to the topic of women, a key demographic in the undecided electorate.

In past debates, we’ve noted that Mitt Romney favors four-point lists as a speaking tactic, where the fourth point on the list will normally be his key talking point, and during the first debate, that key talking point was Small Business.

Tonight he returned to that key talking point, but sadly the President’s team had seen it coming and the President was uncannily ready with a list of negatives about Governor Romney’s record on exactly that subject.

This was another strong element working in the President’s favor: Incredible preparation and planning concerning both his own strategy, and his opponent’s.

Governor Romney did attain the occasional moment of glory. In particular, I thought his response “America has not dictated to other nations. America has freed other nations from dictators” was both clever and stylish. Sadly though, it was his only such moment.

It was an Obama victory tonight. And a victory that pointed up the importance of not just passion, but planning and preparation.

 

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.

Obama v. Romney: Blogging the 2012 US Presidential Debates


by Peter Watts

The ancient Romans and Greeks gave us the skills we today call Public Speaking. They also brought us the arena. For the Greeks, that arena contained the high ideals of athletics. For the Romans, it was frequently filled with something a lot more bloody.

This week, we will see those traditions of the ancient world resonate in the gladiatorial collision of the US Presidential Debates.

Watched, analysed, and regarded as more vital than the Party Conventions, the debating action might not have the physical blood of the Roman arena, but it will still be a fight to the death. As Richard Nixon famously discovered when he came up against John F. Kennedy, a poor performance means the end of not just a political campaign but the beginning of a political obituary.

This is reality TV with a vengeance, and doing justice to blogging the debates is a blogging mission bigger than any lone blogger, which is why there are two of us teaming up for it.

For the next three weeks, the Make A Powerful Point blog hosted by Gavin McMahon and The Presenters’ Blog hosted by Peter Watts will be joining forces. The day after each debate we’ll be looking at a specific aspect of the art of debating and then putting forward our own unique take on how the contenders did. We’re even going to try to score them and see if we can pick a winner.

Ah yes, a winner. In the interests of fairness, we’re also going to take it in turns to “spot” the different candidates, so here’s the schedule:

Wednesday 3rd October: Domestic Policy Debate in Denver
In Mitt Romney’s corner: Peter
In President Obama’s: Gavin

How did the candidates do at the fine art of “staying on message”? This comes down to the way they handle and frame their answers to the questions. A well turned answer will respond to the question while subtly boomeranging back around to the candidate’s chief talking points. A badly turned answer will have the Twitterverse twanging and host Jim Lehrer dragging the candidate back to the subject at hand.

Tuesday 16th October: Town-Meeting Format in New York
In Mitt Romney’s corner: Gavin
In President Obama’s: Peter

For the Town Meeting debate, we’ll be looking at the candidates’ use of language, and in particular how well they manage to move against their accepted presenter-types. Can President Obama sound Presidential rather than Professorial, and can Mitt Romney leave behind his wooden, PowerPoint-driven Management Consultant mode.

In particular we’re going to explore how the candidates use techniques such as metaphor, simile, and repetition to get their points across. This is a Town Meeting after all, and we’re looking for some down-home use of plain speaking, with just the occasional rhetorical flourish.

Monday 22nd October: Foreign Policy in Boca Raton
In Mitt Romney’s corner: Gavin & Peter
In President Obama’s: Gavin & Peter

This one’s the final show down, and someone might have their back against the wall, or we might have a one-all draw! We’ll also have had two debates behind us to get insights into how the candidates battle against each other.

Having seen how the candidates have performed to date, we’ll know where each is strong and where each is weak. Our final analysis topic will be on how the candidates manage to maximise those strengths, and to cover their weaknesses.

Each of our posts will be online the afternoon after the debate. We hope you’ll join us with your comments and thoughts on how the candidates have performed.

We’re looking forward to the debates, both on the stage, and here on the blog.

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 news 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.

Obama: The greatest speech-maker of our time?

Guest-post from the “Grist Presents” blog

by Peter Watts

Spotted by our good friends over at Grist Presents. Can Obama still deliver a smoking-hot speech? Yes he can

Grist Present

The simple answer is ‘yes’.

When Obama turns it on, he is simply brilliant. This section from a speech has been put to music, and well-crafted by a team that are very, very good at what they do, but take away the flim-flam and you are still left with something really powerful, and superbly delivered.

As ever, the killer lines are not about him.

“Thanks to you…”

View original post

The fine art of presentation distraction: Romney creates a Ryan smokescreen

For a big distraction, go with a big crazy decision

by Peter Watts

“Look! A polar bear!”

It’s the classic presenter smoke-screen, and sometimes it can even work!

If you have been unskilled enough to get yourself backed into the corner by your audience on a topic that you don’t want to discuss, then you only have one option left.

The monumental distraction!

I believe today’s announcement of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s choice for Vice-President is a presentation tactic simply to divert attention away from the growing tax questions circling around Romney.

I believe this because the choice fails to make sense on at least two levels:

The timing of the announcement is wrong

For a measure of how wrong it is, take a look at the fact that nobody predicted today as the choice. There is no logical reason why Romney should suddenly have spat-out a VP choice.

The choice is wrong

Paul Ryan is rich red-meat for the hard-right core of the Republican Party. This is a group of people who weren’t about to vote for Obama anyway. Instead this will produce a massive mobilization of Seniors, Women voters, and Independents across to the Obama camp.

Frank Bruni in the NYT describes the breath-taking political risk level of this hail-mary throw superbly in his piece: “Risky Ryan”

Even though Ryan is most definitely not a Sarah Palin, the mechanisms behind his choice appear to be extremely similar. McCain was in a tight-spot and he needed a headline in a hurry. He seized on Palin as a way to create a headline.

Romney desperately needs a headline too, and has hit the nuclear button in order to get one.

So, what he is getting in terms of Paul Ryan’s speaking abilities? In particular, how does he stack up against incumbent Vice-President Joe Biden?

Ryan’s major forte comes in terms of numbers. Put him in a high-stress environment such as a TV studio or in front of a major audience, and his ability to hold and manipulate those numbers in his head is super-human.

He is an incredible detail thinker, and analytical to a fault.

Here is a clip of Ryan speaking in the House that shows this incredible numbers brain in operation:

Up against Joe Biden, this would immediately suggest a Ryan win. Biden is passionate and famously excitable. When he becomes excited, he speaks from the heart. When the words entering Biden’s mouth are coming straight from Biden’s heart, then Biden’s foot is seldom far behind.

So, for mental fire-power combined with coolness, Ryan has the capacity to slice Biden into sashimi.

There is a major plus in Biden’s favor however. He is avuncular, he is human, and he is extremely likable.

Ryan is not. Typical Ryan traits when debating include smirking, finger pointing, interrupting, and general bullying. He also uses informal forms of address as a way to sound friendly, but in reality to belittle his opponent. Take a look at this clip:

Ryan is a skilled speaker. He might try to hide it but various little tells of stagecraft show a lot of training. As a trained speaker he knows how to behave with honor. We have to assume therefore that he is doing this with full and deliberate awareness.

In the ultimate Biden v. Ryan analysis, then with regret I have to call it as advantage-Ryan. It’s going to be nasty. It’s going to be messy. No one apart from the Tea Party will enjoy the spectacle, but I’m really not sure if passionate Joe Biden will be able to withstand the Ryan ice-pick.

Republican insider Peter Wehner recently said:

“When he looks at Ryan, Romney probably sees somebody like himself, a person he’d want at his side in the business world or the political world.”

In panic Romney has chosen the sort of man he would have chosen to have as a faithful lieutenant at Bain Capital.

Side by side, they represent the Bain of America.

Unless of course, the distraction tactics fail.

What do you think will happen? Will Romney succeed in distracting the media’s attention, with his very own Ryan tax-plan?

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