WebMD Medical News
Louise Chang, MD
As the presidential debates get under way, history suggests what the
candidates say may not be as important as how they say it.
The first presidential debate to be televised took place in 1960 between
John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. Reactions to this debate changed
presidential politics forever, says Kellie Roberts, head coach of the
University of Florida's Speech and Debate Team.
"People who listened on the radio thought Nixon won," Roberts tells
WebMD. But those who watched on television declared Kennedy the winner. He had
better posture and "looked presidential," she says. "People became
more aware of the importance of how things look, and that has affected
strategies in debates ever since."
Debates rarely sway voters who have already made a tentative choice, says
Larry J. Sabato, PhD, director of the University of Virginia's Center for
Politics. "But sometimes," he tells WebMD, "if one candidate does
particularly well or commits an embarrassing gaffe, a debate can tilt the
undecided voters strongly in one direction. There is no question that the
debates helped elect John Kennedy in 1960, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan
in 1980, and Bill Clinton in 1992."
What is special about presidential debates, says executive coach Carol
Kinsey Goman, PhD, is that they offer a chance to glimpse the candidates
unscripted. In scripted speeches, "body language cues as well as rhetoric
are honed by coaches," says Goman, who is the author of The Nonverbal
Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work. In debates,
"people are much more vulnerable and their body cues are much more
Ideally, debates "should be all about the content of the message,"
Roberts says. "However, research shows about 70% of our message comes from
what we do nonverbally -- posture, the use of space, how we use our voice, how
we gesture and use our bodies."
These signals provide emotional cues to back up verbal arguments, Goman
tells WebMD. Whether you are a business executive promoting a vision for your
company or a politician promoting a vision for your country, body language and
rhetoric must be in sync. "If your words are saying, 'trust me,' but your
body language is not, you've just derailed your message."
With that in mind, WebMD consulted with speech and body language experts to
debate scorecard. Use it to determine which candidate you think
communicates most effectively in each debate.
As you watch the first presidential debate, give each candidate a score of 1
to 5 in the following categories. Be sure to subtract a point if a candidate
makes any of the moves listed as "deductions."
1. MessageBase your grade not on whether you agree with a candidate's message, but on
how clear that message is. Tim Koegel, a media coach and author of the
best-selling book The Exceptional Presenter, says brevity is essential.
"The more concise, the better," he tells WebMD. "Candidates should
have two or three key points for every topic -- three is the maximum [viewers]
can remember."Extra credit:Illustrating key points with quick stories.Deductions:Long-winded or rambling answers. Obvious gaffes, such as misstating a well-known fact.
2. Speech Pattern"The beauty of great presentations and delivery is that everyone is
different," Koegel says. Answers don't need to follow a specific pattern,
but should sound unrehearsed. Rhythm and pacing should be natural, "like
they're having a conversation." Speech patterns also suggest how knowledgeable and confident a candidate
is about any given topic. When someone takes longer than usual to respond or
peppers an answer with "um" and "uh," he or she is probably
uncomfortable with the subject matter. "The ums can affect undecided
voters," Koegel tells WebMD.
Deductions:Awkward pauses and filler, such as "ummm."
3. Tone of Voice
"Passion must come through," Koegel says, noting that passion tops the
list of characteristics people use to describe effective speakers. Roberts, the University of Florida debate coach, adds a caveat --
candidates should convey emotion, such as passion or anger, without going too
far. She recalls democratic candidate Howard Dean's infamous battle cry during
the 2004 primaries. "We're looking at [electing] the leader of the free
world," Roberts says. "They have to stay in control." Other pitfalls include a condescending tone or unusually high pitch, which
suggests stress. "Watch for a rise in pitch at the end of a
sentence," Koegel says. This makes a candidate's statement sound more like
a question and undermines the point being made.
Deductions:Monotone voice that expresses no passion. Angry tone that comes off as a rant or bluster.
Rising pitch at the end of sentences.
4. PostureStanding up tall with the head held high is essential for two reasons, says
Goman, the body language expert. "It sends a positive message to the brain
and gives you a psychological advantage. Also, you do look taller," which
is an advantage in itself. But there's more to posture than standing tall. "If you see someone
standing with their legs a little apart, their arms loosely by their sides,
those are gestures of being confident and relaxed," Goman says. Legs
together and arms stiffly at the side send a signal that something is
[Editor's note: When scoring on this topic, a little context is necessary.
Keep in mind that John McCain has limited mobility of his arms because
of wounds he suffered as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.]
Leaning is also an important clue, Goman tells WebMD. People tend to lean
toward questions they like and away from questions they don't like, so watch
for any shifts.Deductions:Slouching or resting on the podium.
Standing with the legs together and arms stiffly at the sides.
Leaning away from the person asking the question.5. GesturesGesturing is a natural way to enhance speech, Koegel tells WebMD.
Candidates will use their hands more freely on topics they are comfortable
with. When they feel nervous, they may keep the hands within an imaginary box
in front of the torso. "Most people have been reading body cues since the time they were
born," Goman says. The candidates know this, so many of their gestures may
be rehearsed. For example, placing the hands flat on the lectern or table, and
arranging the fingertips into a steeple can help convey confidence in a
particular point. Goman suggests recording the debates and looking for
"microgestures" -- smaller movements that give more authentic clues to
the candidates' mindsets. In particular, she says touching the mouth or nose
while speaking can suggest some type of deception.
Extra credit:Open palm gestures, which signal authenticity.Deductions:Unnatural or stiff gestures. Wild or over-the-top gestures. Gripping the podium tightly.
Pointing or finger-wagging. Touching the mouth or nose while speaking.
6. Facial ExpressionsThe face is one of the best places to read stress. According to Goman, a
person's blink rate increases dramatically under stress. The mouth becomes dry,
so watch for a candidate licking the lips. Biting the lip, on the other hand,
suggests a person does not fully believe what he or she is saying.
To convey authenticity, candidates must remember to smile. "It's helpful to
smile wherever appropriate," Koegel says. "A smile comes across as
relaxed and comfortable." But the smile had better be sincere, Goman adds.
"A real smile crinkles the eyes and has a warm feeling," while a fake
smile makes people recoil.
Again, Goman suggests recording the debates and watching for
"microexpressions." "Look for those tiny expressions of disgust or
anger or fear -- it happens before the conscious mind can say that's not a good
thing to do." Watch for these expressions not only in the candidate who is
speaking, but also in the candidate who is listening.Deductions:Stoic face that reveals no emotion.
Inappropriate or fake smiling.
Poor eye contact. Blinking more often than usual.
Scowling or rolling the eyes. Licking or biting the lips.
Bonus PointAccording to Goman, if one candidate walks over to his or her opponent's
space to shake hands at the end of the debate, this is icing on the cake. The
space-invading candidate has "taken control and put the other candidate at
Well, you of course will judge that, and preference will certainly weigh
into it. Still, WebMD will check back with the experts the day after the first
debate. We'll ask them to rate the candidates' performances in each of these
Ready to start keeping score?
Print our debate scorecard.
SOURCES:Museum of Broadcast Communications.Kellie Roberts, director of forensics, University of Florida Speech and
Debate Team; interim director, Dial Center of Written and Oral
Communication.Larry J. Sabato, PhD, director, University of Virginia's Center forPolitics;
author, Divided States of America.Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, executive coach and author, The Nonverbal
Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work.Tim Koegel, media coach and author, The Exceptional Presenter.
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