Presentation Lessons From Presidential Debates

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As we write this newsletter, all of the presidential debates have taken place. People asked us to share our professional view on the presentation techniques, so we decided to share lessons you can draw from watching Presidential candidates Obama and Romney, and VP candidates Biden and Ryan.

1. Connect With Your Audience

  • Humanize data: When you cite statistics (such as unemployment rates, etc.) the way to connect is to humanize it. Rather than simply barraging the public with all the related statistics, each candidate focused on a few key numbers and then humanized the implications by talking about real people’s experiences.
  • Organize facts/data: “Tell people what you’re going to tell them; give them the facts, and then summarize.” That classic adage helped Romney in his first debate. He wanted people to know there were five points to his economic plan. He stated that to be the case; he then listed the five, and later he referred to the fact that his plan consists of five key elements. (If you were putting the points in a PowerPoint Presentation, you would use 5 bullets if all five are equally important; if there was a clear order effect, with the first more important than the last, then you would number them.)
  • Use relevant examples: When Romney alluded that by Obama that by constantly repeating a statement many times, in order to get the audience to believe it, didn’t necessarily make it true. Romney did this since children often use this approach to convince parents, Romney referred to the fact that he has five sons, and, they too have tried this strategy.
  • Use “one-liners” to help make a point memorable: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” and “There he goes again”, are examples of lines used by presidents in debates. Romney did that when he said “You’re entitled to your house and your airplane, but not to your own facts.”

2. Project a Professional/Executive Presence

  • Acknowledge others and identify yourself: In the debates, the candidates wore suits, welcomed their opponent with a handshake and smile, each acknowledged the audience and moderator, before going into their presentations. The moderator introduced each candidate; in your case if no-one else is there to introduce you, take a second to do so (and if appropriate put your name on the cover slide).
  • Eye-contact is critical: Usually candidates use their eyes to connect with the audiences. However, in the first debate, Obama had a tendency to look down at his podium, while Romney focused on making constant eye contact with the audience. In addition, each debater should look at the other party when speaking to him/her. Romney did this more.
  • Body language speaks volumes: In the Vice Presidential debate, Biden smirked and sneered at Ryan’s comments, and interrupted him often, as if to communicate to the audience “don’t believe what he says, he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about.” However, by constantly doing so, he overdid it, and made himself look very unprofessional to many viewers.
  • Show your passion: One of the criticisms of the first debate was that Obama lacked his usual passion, giving Romney the advantage. In the Vice Presidential debate, Biden was more passionate, but his body language faux-pas led most people to judge Biden and Ryan equally.
  • Confidence is crucial: In the third debate, Obama was deemed the more poised candidate according to the analysts, because he had a consistent and cool disposition during the debate. Poise is vital when making presentations, audiences are more receptive to a composed presenter; it also allows you to remember lines your prepared prior to the presentation.

3. Take Control

  • You decide how to respond to tough questions: In these debates, the moderators always ask “what are you going to do about….” The speakers respond, but often don’t give a full and real answer. In the Vice Presidential debate, both speakers answered by discussing past actions, with Biden pointing to how “right” they were and Ryan to how “wrong” they were. No specifics on future actions were given. Similarly, when you’re questioned, you may not know or want to give a specific answer. Do as they did: give a partial answer and invite the audience to follow up for more specificity. As with the debate, there often isn’t follow-up.
  • Rehearse: If a presentation is important, then invest the time needed to make sure you are in control, in terms of content, style and passion. Some people felt that Romney rehearsed much more vigorously for the first debate than Obama – which may explain the results. Remember, when the stakes are high, it’s a big mistake not to arrange time to rehearse and feel in control. And if it’s your first encounter with the audience, then the stakes are even higher: you get only one chance to make a good first impression!
  • Focus on your goal: After the debates, Romney’s advisors stated that the goal wasn’t to win each debate; it was to present Romney as a true presidential option. Polls after the debates, which have him gaining more votes than before the debates, suggests he accomplished that goal.