We’re embroiled in one of the most publicized presidential elections in American history. It’s not hard to identify why. The Democratic nominee is, for the first time in history, a woman. The Republican nominee is, I suppose also for the first time, a real estate mogul slash reality TV star with not a day of public service to his name. The world has never been more connected than it is now and it’s never been easier to tune in, keep up, be a part of the conversation. Maybe we’re used to the dull and constant hum of the media, but nothing could possibly prepare us for this roar.
Televised presidential debates play perfectly to this climate. The unfortunate reality is most don’t watch to learn about a candidate’s policy position, but rather to see how they perform under pressure. Like it or not, debates are less about steak, more about sizzle. Or at least that’s how Barbara Bates puts it. Bates is the founder and CEO of Hotwire North America, a communications agency, and also happens to be a 25-year public relations veteran. She lent me her PR goggles to better see what we can learn from the debates from a perspective most of us can relate to: public speaking.
“Now more than ever, political campaigning has become less about content and more about brand,” Bates says. “Consider Donald Trump. I’d venture to guess that many of his supporters disagree with a lot of what he says, but what they’re really responding to is his brand as a ‘successful businessman’ and this staunch, strong American straight-shooter.”
Bates thinks the debate format is an unfortunate one in the political context, as it acts more as a conduit for brand than policy. “It becomes more about who can entertain and hold attention and leave an impression than about who can lead the country.” But what we can do is learn from that, she says. If we look at the debates as a PR event, it’s easy to break down what works and what doesn’t when it comes to conveying a message and making an impression. What can Trump and Clinton teach us about effective communication? Bates offers five main takeways.
1. Entertain your audience
Trump is nothing if not entertaining, and Bates says this has played to his favor. “Clinton can sometimes lose people because she gets very logical and deep into the issues.” Unfortunately, getting caught up in the minutia may bore your audience and make your words less heard. Last night was an interesting lesson, though, in how being entertaining can present diminishing returns. Trump lost ground.
Winner: Trump (for now)
2. Remain poised
Poise in the face of curveballs leaves an impression and helps you stay focused on the message. “Trump looks unprepared and unhinged when he gets so visibly flustered and argumentative,” she says. Clinton remains calm and doesn’t take the bait, even when it’s dangling right in front of her.
3. Keep it simple
Bates says that simple statements stick in viewers’ minds. “Trump says what people want to hear with such confidence. He repeats simple statements over and over. It’s memorable. That works really well when you need the attention of your viewers.”
4. Manage your facial expressions
Bates says Clinton is great at face management, and she’s smart to focus on appearing collected. Trump’s inability to mask his emotions is distracting. “The real winner of the debates is the split screen,” says Bates, and that’s not good for Trump.
5. Appeal to your audience’s emotions
Too much reactionary emotion in your face may be distracting, but purposeful emotional engagement in your message goes a long way. “Trump stays high-level and emotional, whereas Clinton has, in the past, gone lower-level and logical.” From a public speaking perspective, logic is less effective, less memorable, less engaging. Dial up the emotion, as Clinton did last night, it will leave a lasting impression.
Looking at the debates — and this election in general — through the lens of brand is a helpful and disturbing exercise. It explains why Trump’s gotten so far despite his clear shortcomings and might also explain why Clinton’s had to work much harder to win hearts and minds despite her immense qualifications. “Clinton has never had a strong personal brand,” Bates says. “Even if she speaks with intelligence and from experience, the ‘likeability’ issue has haunted her for years. So, as with Trump, her brand (or lackthereof) often speaks louder than her words.”
But that’s changing. Trump may win for entertainment and keeping it simple, but Clinton is close behind him, especially after last night’s debate. She’s honing in on a brand — poise, above all — and it’s working. This is an important lesson: The way we say our words is just as if not more important than the words themselves. Take note.
Photo of Microphone by George Marks via Getty Images. Collaged by Krista Anna Lewis.