Communication Lessons from the First Debate

The two presidential candidates met in a cage match in Cleveland Tuesday evening, and aside from the political issues, it was a shining example of the ways communicators can fail to reach their desired audience.

Presuming that each candidate’s base is solidly in his corner, that leaves the “undecideds” that each needs to reach and convince to get the votes needed to win. Frankly, we think that each candidate fell short of that goal in several ways.

One thing we always advise our clients in any meeting with news media, analysts, or other audiences is to act like you enjoy being there. Neither candidate really seemed happy. People are far more likely to engage with and pay attention to someone who is enthused about what they’re saying and having a good time saying it.

We also advise being forceful in your communication style, but there are limits to that. President Trump was clearly the more forceful of the two candidates, but he went too far too frequently, and risked being seen as rude. That’s a perception that he has had to deal with since taking office, and he did nothing during the debate to dispel that image.

Of course, any communicator must convey information of value. There, former Vice President Joe Biden fell short. Far too much of what he said consisted of the usual bland political platitudes, without providing specific information. It’s not enough to tell someone that you’re going to make their life better. Without some details about how, it’s pretty much empty verbiage. “Purr words,” they used to call them; words used just to make you feel warm and fuzzy, not to convey information.

Both candidates also did far too much question-dodging. Yes, we do advise clients to redirect questions in order to better convey their key messages. That can keep an interview or conversation from going off the rails message-wise. But it has to be done artfully. That is, you have to address the specifics of the question at least briefly while moving it in the direction you want to go.

Too often, each of the debaters just launched into a rant on their desired subject with absolutely no regard for the original question. If one of our clients did that in an interview, the interviewer would get frustrated (as this debate watcher did) and come to believe that the subject of the interview wasn’t listening to the questioner at all. Not a good thing when it comes to gaining positive media coverage.

One more point: It’s always best to listen to the full question before starting your answer. That didn’t happen a lot at the debate, but the truth is, you never know whether the question itself may take a turn after the setup to it. There’s also the matter of courtesy to the questioner, who is going to have to end up asking the question again anyway if you didn’t answer what he or she was asking. Hanging on until the final questionmark is worth the effort for all concerned.

Granted, a presidential debate is a far different animal than a standard interview or analyst briefing. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn lessons from it.