Memo to Women Candidates from Debate Coach Chris Jahnke

Debate Prep Part I: Write Your Playbook Now

Women candidates running for executive posts in 2016 should watch and learn from the first Democratic primary debate. What candidates see and hear from the presidential contenders can jump start their own debate prep regimen. Consider Hillary Clinton, whose experience weathering innumerable attacks on her frontrunner status in 2008 should provide a strategic advantage this week over her opponents.

DemDebate-Live-TweetWhile not yet fully battle tested, Carly Fiorina has demonstrated how a strong performance can catapult even a less experienced candidate ahead of the competition.   A poor performance can immediately disqualify candidates seeking executive office – particularly women. Jeb Bush has been given second and third chances, but a woman who stumbles would be judged more harshly. The bar is higher and different for women, and you need a well-honed strategy to clear it.

This memo is the first in a series to help you gear up for a forum – the debate stage — that can significantly affect the outcome on Election Day. I’ll share best practices gleaned from 20 years of experience behind the curtain. Let’s start with questions that are essential to developing a strategic approach to your on-stage performance.

Are you a first-timer or have you been around the block?


The first-time candidate needs to prepare differently from someone with a track record. There’s no legislative record to defend, but you must be up to speed on the issues. Donald Trump infamously said his foreign policy information comes from TV: “I watch the shows.” Women candidates tend to veer to the other extreme, attempting to memorize encyclopedia-sized briefing books. Neither approach is sustainable. Trump has already bungled questions on the Middle East. Messages devoid of personal belief statements feel less authentic. You need intellect and heart.

Most debates are organized around a few issues such as jobs and the economy, taxes, crime, health care, and education, with the economy by far the most relevant to voters. When Fiorina ran against Barbara Boxer in the 2010 U.S. Senate race, her biggest blunder was failing to establish her economic credentials. This left her vulnerable to Boxer’s strongest attack, accusing the former CEO of shipping 30,000 jobs overseas and taking a $21 million dollar severance check.  Now Fiorina owns her experience as a “leader who knows how to make hard choices in difficult times, doubling the company in size and saving 80,000 jobs.” (See my analysis of Fiorina’s presidential debate performance here.)


Clinton has a decades long track record of public service that she will need to promote and defend against attacks by her opponents. Senator Bernie Sanders’ populist message about taking on the billionaire class is resonating with grassroots donors and is potentially a point of vulnerability for Clinton. A smart way to inoculate herself would be to articulate her plan to “raise incomes for working-class Americans so they can afford a middle-class life.” A proactive argument coupled with an optimistic tone will enable Clinton to seize the upper hand.


Opening statements and two-minute response times are becoming obsolete. More frequently, moderators like Anderson Cooper are asking for one-word answers and deploying lightening rounds of 30-second answers. Seize the time you have to articulate a shared value and credential yourself: “As a mom and a doctor I understand what families are facing with health care.” When there’s time, paint contrast: “My opponent focuses on those who already have insurance.” Voters want to know who you are, why you care, and what you will get done. It is possible to say something meaningful if you convey what the voters are listening for.

How strong are your public speaking skills?


While it’s frustrating, in a TV debate having the answers isn’t enough. In fact, your likeability quotient may suffer if reciting data comes at the expense of projecting confidence.  Now is the time to shore up weak delivery skills and work out the appearance package. When was the last time you saw yourself on video? If it wasn’t yesterday, it’s time now. Voters size you up by listening to the quality of your voice, watching your body language, and taking in your message. Track progress by watching yourself on the stump fielding questions. Seek out constructive feedback. The “atta girls” are important to keep your spirits up, but objectivity speeds improvement.


The ability to go with the flow, especially in a difficult situation, can create a magical moment. Last year Clinton spoke at a large trade association event in Las Vegas when a woman hurled something at the stage. Watch Clinton duck and calmly ask: “Is that someone throwing something at me? Is that part of Cirque du Soleil?”  Secret Service is nowhere in sight as Clinton earns an ovation from the crowd by saying: “Thank goodness she didn’t play softball like I did.”  That’s experience paying off.

Racking up rehearsal time prepares you to expect the unexpected. I’ve seen candidates thrown off by a question like: “Say something nice about your opponent.” The briefing book won’t help you with that one. Recognize that personal questions are fair game and likely. Above and beyond all else, your ability to come across as a good sport will earn you points.


Take the appearance question off the table by identifying holes in your wardrobe. Is your apparel camera ready? A well-tailored suit in a solid color is a must for the debate stage. The backdrop and staging should dictate color and style. Leave bright, shiny objects at home – both the family jewels and trinkets. Otherwise you are tempting the press to ridicule accessory choices. Hair and makeup must also be camera ready. If you need to update your look, it’s better to make changes now before the campaign heats up.

Is your team ready?

Practicing the right way ensures you are ready for anything. Your campaign team needs to appreciate this and provide the tools and resources so you can learn how to project your best self. Team members should have clearly defined roles, whether in research, video logging, protecting practice time, or coordinating rehearsals. In my next memo, I’ll provide more specific pointers on implementing a practice routine. What’s key now is to consider whether or not you have the people in place to take you to the next level.


Just as you assess your own strengths and weaknesses, you must objectively ask whether staff and consultants have the know-how and wherewithall. It’s impossible to watch video of yourself if no one taped the last event. While you appear on stage alone, you need resourceful, supportive people backstage who know the ropes. Family members may provide support, but it’s unlikely they have the political savvy.   Further, look at the demographics – do your advisors reflect the diversity of voters you need to reach? Loyalty matters, but this may be the time to bring in some new talent.

Time on the debate stage provides an unparalleled opportunity to define your candidacy, provide contrast with opponents, and demonstrate leadership — but, only if you are rested and ready. Avoid last-minute, stress-filled cram sessions by charting out a plan.   A great performance will raise your stature, creating the buzz for favorable polls, fundraising, and news coverage.


chrisjahnkeChristine K. Jahnke has coached more women candidates and elected officials than any other trainer. She is the founder of Positive Communications and the author of THE WELL-SPOKEN WOMAN