by Steve Adubato, PhD
This week’s Presidential debate offered some important lessons for professionals of all stripes on how to communicate and comport yourself when engaging an opponent with a different point of view in a very public setting.
Politics and ideology aside, President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney had a job to do that involved their ability to communicate effectively, present concisely and carry themselves with executive presence and likeability that would have a great impact on people’s perceptions of them as human beings. Making a human connection, whether in person or via television, still matters a great deal regardless of the venue.
With this in mind, consider some valuable verbal and non-verbal communication issues from the debate, which offer lessons for the rest of us:
--Eye contact. For whatever reason, President Obama chose not to look at Governor Romney while Romney was speaking. For much of the time, the President was writing on a notepad with his head down, which could easily communicate a lack of respect for his opponent. Conversely, Romney consistently looked at the President—sometimes stared uncomfortably at him—but at least he acknowledged his presence. It is important, even if you disagree with your verbal opponent, that you acknowledge his or her presence by making direct eye contact. We expect our leaders to be courteous regardless of whether we agree with them or not.
--Be concise and succinct. Neither candidate was either concise or succinct. Both came into the debate with a mind-numbing amount of statistics that they were going to communicate regardless of whether they were effective or not. Both of them kept going over the time limits set by moderator Jim Lehrer, not because they had new or important information to share, but rather because they were saying the same thing in a verbose and unnecessarily complex fashion. Interestingly, either candidate could have scored huge points in this category if they only used 30-seconds or less to answer a particular question by getting right to the point. They didn’t. Brevity has value.
--Clarity of message. Once again, what was missing on the part of both President Obama and Governor Romney were simple, relevant and powerful examples and anecdotes about real people’s lives that would resonate with the average citizen. Both kept talking about the middle class as a category of people and how certain tax policies would affect them. But neither made it personal or human. Neither broke it down by talking about an individual family in New Jersey or Michigan living on a particular salary—with one kid in college and another about to get married—with a father about to lose his job. Romney did it a little bit, but not to any great extent, and the President didn’t do it at all. Great communication, be it in a debate or in any public setting, connects with the audience on a human and personal level, rather than because of a speaker delivering a data dump.
--Executive presence. Both Romney and Obama have strong executive presence. They look like chief executives. They carry themselves like leaders. They stand with their shoulders back and they are both physically fit and speak with strong voices. But again, executive presence also involves the ability to be assertive in your communication and, in this particular debate; Governor Romney was consistently more assertive. President Obama is an excellent teleprompter communicator and he reads a script better than most. But in this particular setting, he did not seem prepared for the impromptu communication necessary to respond and react quickly. And once again, there were numerous times that the President did seem uninterested and disengaged, while Romney was constantly firing away. I’m not saying the President actually WAS uninterested, but that was the perception of many and in the world of communication and executive presence, perception is reality.