Everyone advises you to “just be yourself.” But how is that possible under hot TV lights, inches from an opponent, with reporters waiting to pounce on any misstep? What can be done in advance to present your best self? Debate coach Chris Jahnke profiles style archetypes to model and to avoid. Look for these best and worst practices at the next presidential debate this Wednesday. Who does well? Who could use more coaching?
THE WORST PRACTICES
Type A Overachiever
Yes, it is possible to be over-prepared. The debate stage is not the time to channel the Tracy Flick character as portrayed by Reese Witherspoon in the movie Election. Type A Overachievers are the smartest people in the room because they’ve worked diligently to memorize all of the answers. Memorization leads to a rote delivery style. Vice-President Al Gore could recite a litany of issues, but couldn’t muster a compelling sound bite. Voters don’t share the Overachiever’s obsession with detail, and that’s why they have difficulty connecting. When the ultimate, pointy-headed intellectual Michael Dukakis was asked if he would favor the death penalty for someone who brutally murdered his wife, he offered a dispassionate no. The response left voters wondering whether the tin man had a heart.
Take Me as I Am, Damn It
This mindset spans generations and is most pronounced in reaction to the unfair and disproportionate attention paid to the looks of women candidates. What I used to hear from older candidates was: “Appearance isn’t important, what matters is what I stand for.” What I hear now from younger candidates is: “Any focus on my appearance is sexist, so I’ll do whatever I want.” These attitudes, while understandable, often lead to wardrobe choices that turn off voters. If the dress is dowdy and the hair last century, the candidate and her opinions can be dismissed as outdated. You have every right to wear green nail polish, a peace sign necklace, and low-cut blouses, but don’t start complaining when the media judge.
To control the stage, you must own the stage. The pre-debate negotiations are not the time to be reticent or timid. Let your inner diva shine, not by making unreasonable, last minute demands, but with clearly stated preferences. Under no circumstances should you agree to stools or movie director chairs. They are impossible to sit on if you are short or wearing a dress. How high is the lectern, and what is it made of? Most are built for men, so it’s likely too tall for you, in which case you will need to stand on something. What color is the backdrop? Carly Fiorina’s pink silk suit was too shiny and clashed with the background visuals in the first GOP debate. Do you want water, a note pad, or note cards? The staffer with the strongest spine should be tasked with securing what you need.
THE BEST PRACTICES
Putting your ambition story out there is not for the faint of heart. Personal revelations about wanting to do well can be followed by judgment and condemnation along the lines of: “Who does she think she is?” If Tracy Flick were a high school boy, his drive and determination would have been praised. It is possible for others to appreciate your ambition if you help them understand what motivates you. Sharing insights into how your life experiences have shaped your values can dispel the subtext that you trampled colleagues on the way to the top. At the first Democratic debate, Clinton shared wisdom from her mother, who had been abandoned and abused as a child, saying: “The issue is not whether or not you get knocked down, it’s whether you get back up.” By speaking openly about Dorothy Rodham’s perseverance, Clinton is talking about her presidential aspirations in a way that is relatable. A Pitch Perfect narrative is one that creates an emotional bond with the voters.
The Good Sport
There is no crying in baseball, and there is no whining on the debate stage. Expect the moderator to make a mistake with the clock or the questions. Complaining like James Webb in the first Democratic debate sounds petty. Apparently, men aren’t as accustomed to being ignored and talked over. Clinton and Fiorina have learned to handle bro-viators by quickly interjecting. A split-second pause may be all the time you have to get the moderator’s attention, as Clinton did: “Well, let me just follow up on that, Anderson.” Fiorina had to talk over nine men: “Jake (Tapper), I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you why people are supporting outsiders…” Practice this technique in videotaped rehearsals to ensure that your on-camera face time isn’t shortchanged.
Voice of AuthorityThe sound of your voice can build more stature than any pair of high heels. The first step to vocal gravitas is assessing the quality of your sound and level of expressiveness. Is the tone warm or could it etch glass? Are you a fast-talker or do you drone on? The ideal voice is conversational, like that of radio news announcers. A lower pitch and slightly slower pace is associated with authority, control, and confidence. Debate opening and closing statements and most questions have time limits. It is imperative that you practice aloud and record yourself to accurately gauge how you project and make any necessary adjustments.
The debate stage is not the place for humble pie. No need to be a show-boater like Donald Trump, for whom everything is HUGE, even when facts or reality don’t support what he says: “I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created.” It’s necessary to toot your own horn because research shows voters want to hear more from women candidates about their qualifications. Then-Rhode Island Treasurer Gina Raimondo described how her business background and financial acumen enabled her to fix a pension system in crisis. Hammering away on her track record of providing retirement security for thousands of families ensured that she bested her debate opponents and was elected governor. Take credit for real results and voters will believe you are qualified.
Presenting your best self takes some work. You will be ready if you develop proactive practices and habits now. The scary nervousness every debater experiences can be channeled into energy to own the stage.
Debate coach Christine K. Jahnke has worked with more women candidates and elected officials than any other trainer. She is the author of The Well-Spoken Woman.