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 It was a nice rhetorical comparison that made Romney seem outdated and misinformed.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.

 

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.

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?

Romney tax trap: The power and the pitfalls of tropes

Don’t trip over your tropes when presenting. Use them instead

by Peter Watts

Tropes are powerful magic. Think of them as cultural storylines with entire value sets and back-stories ready-made for easy access. Taking advantage of a trope allows us to cast ourselves heroic, or patriotic, or wise, or kind, or any other persona we choose.

When we work within a trope, our words and actions are re-interpreted through the lens of the trope. When deployed well, they attach glory. When tripped over, a trope can turn the noblest intentions on their heads.

Tropes can be long established. For example, Robin Hood has become a trope. Invoke Robin Hood and your audience interpret your message through the age-old context of the noble renegade, who takes from the rich to give to the poor.

At the same time a smaller portion of your audience might start to think of men in tights! For this we can thank Mel Brookes. A trope hijacked with sufficient force will morph into something new. In the case of the Robin Hood trope it has started to symbolize vaguely cross-dressed humor.

Tropes can be tricky affairs. I’m fascinated by their diversity and potential. As a child growing up in the UK, I used to watch a lunchtime children’s program called Mr Ben. In it, the hero, a respectable British gentleman, in plain dark suit and bowler hat (spot the trope!), would visit a magical costume store. He would change into a costume, and the whole world would change around him to match the costume, complete with ensuing adventure. Tropes provide the Mr Ben costume changes of the presenter’s world.

Take a look at some of the wonderfully diverse cast of trope characters available. Feel like slipping into one of them?

Good speech-writers, speakers, and image makers will all be aware of the terrific power of tropes. They script from within narratives that work for their candidates, while attempting to trip opposing candidates into tropes that are damaging.

Sometimes, the speechwriter doesn’t need to do anything at all, because sometimes the inept opponent can be relied on to do all the hard work for them.

That’s what is happening to Mitt Romney through his self-inflicted tax disclosure wounds, or rather, lack of disclosure. Romney has placed himself firmly into the grip of a trope trap of his own making.

Allow me to explain:

By way of background to the trap, Mitt Romney has spent the last few weeks fighting off requests that he release income tax records, a fairly standard part of an election process, and one in which all potential Presidents participate, most of them willingly and generously. Romney’s refusal to divulge anything except the barest minimum of information is now feeding speculation about what he’s trying to hide.

This is an election season, and it’s a part of the political cycle when political tropes surge to the foreground. Few of them are good. Check out, for example, this trope definition of the sleazy politician.

For any politician with even the tiniest hint of tarnish attached to them, a large section of the viewing audience start to suspiciously view that politician’s every move through that tarnished trope.

In the case of Romney’s self-inflicted tax issues, they can now add “evasiveness” to the trope….

And they can follow it up with “money”……

And finally, for good measure, it’s “tax money”!

Suddenly that tarnished trope takes a turn for the tricky. It wraps itself around it’s victim. It squeezes, and the harder the victim struggles, the tighter that squeeze becomes.

That squeeze showed itself this week during Romney’s speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a key electoral group.

Here is the line from the speech that came to dominate media attention. It’s a section where Romney demands the White House investigate accusations of classified information being leaked. He is picking up on a theme introduced by Senator John McCain several weeks ago.

“…….it is unacceptable to say, ‘We’ll report our findings after Election Day.’ These are things that Americans are entitled to know – and they are entitled to know right now. The President owes all Americans a full and prompt accounting of the facts.”

Romney wanted to sow seeds of doubt about White House leaks, but instead, with the trope trap in place, the line rebounds back on him like a evil spell cast into a mirror.

“tax records…. Americans are entitled to know….. full and prompt accounting of the facts please…after the election it’s too late……tax records…..Now!”

Tropes are wonderful, playful, and powerful elements of storytelling and whether we are delivering a speech or building an image, storytelling is the all important art form.

Here’s the thing though. Tropes work best when used to build and guild from a well defined foundation. When applied to obfuscation and evasiveness however, they morph, and once in process, that morphing becomes unpredictable.

Romney is still to find his dominant narrative. Further trope traps await.

Presentation Skills Training

by Peter Watts

To become a great presenter, presentation skills training might be the last thing you need.

  •  Can you read basic notes?
  • Can you speak?
  • Can you answer yes to both those questions? Excellent. You’ve got what it takes to speak in public.

Public speaking has little to do with the frills of body language taught in presentation skills classes, which often do little more than help you become a more effective PowerPoint clone.

The fact that you are Googling presentation skills shows that you have a drive to get out there and speak. Your challenge now isn’t to paddle around the edges. Your challenge is to get out there and do it!

Here’s the thing: When you stand up to speak, it’s because you want to persuade, inform, or inspire a group of people. The major focus is to forget about how you are saying things, and focus instead on what you are saying!

When public speaking works it’s about having your own thoughts, your own opinions, and the confidence to express them.

It’s about being able to think, and then having thought, be able to convey those thoughts to others. It’s about message, and knowing how to convey that message. Finally, it’s about being natural and true to your own individual style. Don’t let anyone tell you to change that style. It’s yours, and it’s your own true strength.

There is an interesting article in the New York Times that touches on this. Mitt Romney, nominee assumptive in the Republican race for the the White House, is winning the television debates by having jettisoned the starched, over-prepared approach he took in the 2007 race, and has adopted a more natural, easy going approach. He’s released the presentation skills, and reached for the message.

Let’s compare this to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the UK’s own debates a couple of years ago. A combative and devastatingly effective speaker, Brown should have blasted his way through the debates. Instead he came across as clumsy, with an odd habit of suddenly breaking into a deaths-heads grin rather than his usual scowl. It was the exact opposite of the Romney approach. Brown allowed his normally clear, belief-led style, to be maimed by an overdose of technique; presentation skilled to the point where the presentation’s killed.

What does this mean for the best way to build your presentation skills?

The most effective way is to get out there and present! There is no better forum for developing your skills than the forum itself. Here are some ideas:

Step One: Create Your Opportunity

When pushing your boundaries, the main rule to follow is safety first. You want a safe learning environment where you can experiment a little.

 ToastMasters

ToastMasters are a worldwide group who provide an excellent practice and training environment for presenters

Team Presentations:

If you work within a team, ask the person who normally chairs your team meetings if you can make a presentation. Choose a topic of relevance to the team and one where you have something to offer

Existing Customers

To get used to making customer presentations, you can start off with a presentation either to one of your existing customers who represents a safe environment

Local Schools & Colleges

Check with your H.R. Department. You may find they have a sheaf of requests from local schools for people to speak on Careers Day.

Step Two: Create Your Presentation

Within The Presenter’s Blog, you’ll find ideas for many aspects of presenting. Try the following articles for some ideas:

Always ask: “ Why should my audience care?”

Twitter headlines creates compelling presentations

Presentation structure

Coaching yourself after a presentation

Don’t allow waiting for a chance to attend presentation skills training to delay you. The best way to become a presenter is to have an opinion and to get out there and own it. That’s what public speaking is all about; to persuade, to inform, and to inspire. To inspire yourself out onto the stage, is the all important first step.

%d bloggers like this: