Friday, October 26, 2012

Can a connection be made?

One last blog about the Presidential debates.

I find it troubling that facts were the biggest casualties of this series. If I were an undecided voter I doubt I the debates would have led to a decision. Yes, the President gave lots of detail for how he would reach his policy goals, whereas Governor Romney continued to deal in vague, positive-sounding generalities. But some people do not like all that detail and do not want to know how the economy will be fixed: they just want it to be fixed. So this time, "how I feel about the candidate" just might tip the scales.

The televised debates were meant to give us a clearer view of each candidate; to show us what each of them stood for. But, as I said, facts were distorted so much that it was hard to score them on that point. That brings us back to perception and connection. So what's the final score?

I give the ultimate win to President Obama. Here's why: he proved he can learn from his mistakes. His delivery continued to improve as the cycle went on, while Governor Romney succumbed to overconfidence that led to a smug delivery in the third debate. The Governor is already battling the perception that he thinks he is better than at least 47% of us. He should be more careful not to seem snobby and elitist. A dose of humility would have helped.

As the President noted in his interview with Jay Leno on Wednesday, "If you don't have the energy and presentation that make people snap up and say 'I get it'" you lose. He learned to overcome his personal tendency to be cool, cerebral and aloof and come out in the third debate as someone who will fight for the voter. His eye contact with the moderator, the way he cocked his head as he listened, his use of gestures that were congruent with his words (to name just a couple of specifics) all said: this is a real person who just might listen to a voter like me.

Now I know voting is so incredibly partisan this time around that no one can predict what will happen. But I know that many of us in the professional speaking world hope the President is reelected. He is the better speaker, and - best of all - he has shown he can learn from his mistakes! The fact that he is aware that there is always room for improvement endears him to teachers and coaches everywhere. These debates, after all, did provide us with a glimpse of what makes him tick.

Never underestimate the power of making that connection.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Don't forget the audience

Presidential debates are part campaign rally, part talk show interview, part smack down. I found this  week's debate at Hofstra University a particularly interesting example of the genre. First, you can't put anything over on the undecided voters of Nassau County. They were all thrilled (I would assume) to be there, and were given strict orders not to react to the candidates' responses. But the camera did occasionally catch faces showing various degrees of perplexity, disagreement, enthusiasm. It was good people-watching if you were looking for reflexive responses - the kind that can't be hidden!

Regrettably, the main event became the showdown between the candidates, gleefully reported on by every major media outlet in the country. And though partisans seemed to get some basic animal thrill from watching their guys "duke it out," I would not be surprised if the undecided remained undecided. The candidates each began with a massive failure to play to the studio audience, and to the larger audience at home.

My guess is that both President Obama's and Governor Romney's debate coaches told them to look at the questioner when answering to show sincerity and commitment. But that's exactly what they did -  they showed, all right, but who believed them? They both glombed on to the faces of their unsuspecting targets and fixed on them for way too long. I really felt for Jeremy Epstein, the first one to pose a question. It's hard enough to disengage when someone locks you in their gaze, but when that person is the President, what can you do? Jeremy said in a post-debate interview that he felt nervous, and that he felt he couldn't move because Mitt Romney was looking at him so intently.

After the debate, when Jeremy met the candidates, he said felt he was talking to "real people" -- and for him, that was the best part. Hmmmm. I wonder how a candidate could harness that power of connection during the debate? Here's a hint: real communication never takes place anywhere in the vicinity of a stare down. Relax your gaze, look around, open up your body and your gestures to include others in the audience. Take a cue from Oprah: you need to connect with everyone there -- they are likely as concerned as Jeremy about job prospects for young people. And use the camera to convey your sincerity to the audience at home. There seems to be some great aversion to the camera, as if the candidates had been coached not to try to speak to the very large viewing audience. I can only imagine why that would be -- it will seem more "real" if you don't occasionally connect with viewer at home?? Like this is in any way a "real" event we are just eavesdroping on! There is no fourth wall here. Use the tools of your media, fellas. You don't need to direct address us for paragraphs at a time, but occasionally look in our direction.

Both did a better job as the evening went on. By question three you could see the President loosening up and trying to connect. He did start playing to the crowd more, and his body language relaxed, as did his enunciation. But when Governor Romney interrupted him, you could see his defenses go up, his posture stiffened, he disengaged from the questioner and focussed on his "combatant." Partisans had been begging for that since the first debate. So if the evening was about a fight, they gave us a good show. But if I were an undecided voter, I would still have a lot of questions.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The veep stakes

Last week I wrote that the Presidential debate looked very different to me that it did to most major  pundits who proclaimed their opinions far and wide.  The Daily Beast posted an interesting article that helps explain why: "But with the rise of blogging and especially Twitter, journalists are spending more and more time immersed in the world of retorts and clever one-liners than ever before." So thoughtful responses from Obama, because they weren't snappy or zingy, led him to be caricatured as sleepy, tired, unfocussed. 

After last night's Vice Presidential debate, even greater dissection of the contestants was offered up. Fortunately, looking sleepy was not a charge that could be leveled against either Joe Biden or Paul Ryan.

I thought Joe Biden's energy and pugnaciousness were refreshing, and I did not mind his interrupting  Paul Ryan or Martha Raddatz, since he had valid points to make. Often he corrected a point made by his opponent, a move calculated to try to get people to actually think about what was being said (which is one of the only proven ways to counter mis-information). Much has been made about his smiling at Ryan's statements, but Joe does not have a poker face: much better to smile at something you consider a bunch of "malarkey" as he colorfully termed it, than scowl and/or shake your head! Paul Ryan looked far too earnest. Like he was trying reallyreallyhard to convince the moderator (and by extension, the viewing public) that he was right. His bulging eyes, raised eyebrows and furrowed forehead were exhausting to watch. So earnest, so sure of himself; he walked a very fine line between confidence and smugness. He crossed it a couple of times. But I know he appealed to those who were predisposed to see him as the Next Big Thing and Joe as a washed-up glad-hander.

From a professional standpoint, my critique is of their delivery only; there are way too many organizations who have fact-checked their content for me to weigh in on it. I would give this one to Joe. He was at ease, yet forceful when he needed to be. He used vocal variety to express different ideas and thoughts appropriately. He was at home in his body: he moved, he gestured, he breathed. Paul Ryan, for all his confidence, was, oddly and visably ill at ease. He drank way too much water and swallowed nervously throughout. He lacked the kind of vocal cadence you use when you have internalized a message; he sounded well-drilled. He hammered home his messages with pretty much the same tense, I- want-to-really-make-you-understand feeling all the time. Pushing himself at us, not pulling us in. I got the feeling he wasn't a very good listener.

I'll be listening again next week as Obama and Romney meet again. Who knows? Maybe I will hear something new!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Debating the debate

Presidential Debate season is upon us, and that always makes me ponder just what it is the audience for such televised events expect to see. Every four years when they roll around pollsters tell us that debates really don't change anyone's mind.  So why do we tune in?

I think there are many reasons, not the least of which is that these debates are shared media events for a population that often feels overlooked. They are Superbowls for policy wonks, nerds, and student government officers nation-wide. The debate on October 3rd got more than half as many viewers as the most recent, record-breaking Superbowl!

But, contrary to the experts cited in columns across our nation this past week, I did not see it as a "game-changer," a slam-dunk for a "new and improved" Mitt Romney who all of the sudden appeared presidential. Yes, he had some good moments, but those have become legendary as the week has worn on. And for all the "experts" say "optics matter," am I the only one who thought the smile Governor Romney reverted to while listening was tentative and tense? Apparently Jason Sudeikis and the writers and directors at Saturday Night Live remembered it. It reminded me as I watched Wednesday night of the face my Siamese cat used to make when she smelled something really bad. Of course, the President did not do a great job, either: he did look down a lot, and seemed disengaged.

They both rambled. I do not know what debate the other experts and pundits were watching when they proclaimed Governor Romney succinct and to the point: I felt he was suffering from the run-on-sentencitis that Sarah Palin perfected. And the President joined him in the weeds with too many details, too many factoids that the viewing public could not process.

I would say neither man won, in terms of connecting with the audience. Republican partisans I know disagree, but they had set the bar for success for Governor Romney fairly low after his summer of gaffes. They would argue with me, but I stand by my assessment. He had a few good moments, but overall, he sounded like a politician, trying to score points, talking at the audience.

Many people watch these debates for sport, many for schadenfreude, but I have to believe there are still a few (and maybe the most important, the Undecideds) who actually want to connect with the candidates. Who want to see that they are actually talking to their audience, trying to communicate with them. Not lecture to them, talk down to them, or be disengaged for any reason whatsoever.

Only connect, as E.M. Forster would say. It's that simple. And that hard. It will be instructive to see, during the next town-hall-style debate October 16th, if they have gotten better at connecting. In the meantime, the pretty boy of the Right tries to take down the sex symbol of the Left this week as Congressman Ryan meets Vice President Biden. Now that will be good television!