2016 U.S. Presidential Debates: A Global Lesson in Speaker Training

On September 23rd I had the tables turned on me. Rather than being the coach for a media interview, I had the honor of being interviewed by Anna-Marie Capomaccio, a reporter with Radio France Internationale (RFN). This U.S. presidential election has gained extraordinary global interest and RFN is following every step of it for their 40 million listeners around the world.

The interview with me was part of a series of stories RFN is doing on our 2016 presidential campaign and the debates leading up to the November election. The story was broadcast Monday, several hours before the first debate.

I was asked about the “behind the scenes action” of a U.S. presidential debate, and specifically what kind of preparation each candidate, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, might be doing. I was also asked to comment on how I would prepare them if I were coaching them. While each candidate has specific – and well documented – challenges, the objective of every candidate in any presidential debate is the same: Persuade the undecided voters to your side.

The art of persuasion, at its core, is the ability to clearly communicate your viewpoint in a way that is relatable to your audience. How is this done? By first knowing exactly what your audience cares about most and telling them what they want to hear. But, how you deliver your messages makes a huge difference in whether you win or lose the support of others.

As I said in the interview, if I were working with either candidate I would remind him or her that people are basically persuaded by three things. Yes, what you say is very important, but how you sound when you say it, and how you look when you say it can either help or diminish your credibility and buy-in from your audience. Presidential debates also give candidates the opportunity to look and sound presidential under pressure.

Body language and vocal quality have huge impact on the impression others have of a speaker. Looking and sounding confident and in control is essential to being a successful speaker or debater. Avoid sarcastic facial expressions or losing your “cool” and yelling. Maintain a neutral or positive facial expression – no matter what your opponent is saying. Your voice should reflect compassion, caring, strength, defiance, and determination depending on the point you are making. Don’t butt in. Don’t go over time. Keep your messages simple, short and relatable to the audience.

Most of us will not be preparing for presidential debates, but strong communication skills can make or break a career. If there is a public speaking problem you struggle with, I would highly encourage you to read the three part series on my website that gives many more tips for becoming a more engaging and credible speaker.  

And, one final note: In past elections studies have shown that the final presidential debates typically didn’t change the poll numbers enough to have a huge impact on the election. But this campaign hasn’t been “typical” in any aspect – and neither are the candidates. It will be interesting to see how the debate styles of the two candidates evolve over the course of the next month!

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