Behavior Reigns – Lessons from the Debate Front

"We don't 'know' our presidents. We imagine them. We watch them intermittently and from afar, inferring from only a relatively few gestures and reactions what kind of people they are and whether they should be in charge. Much depends on our intuition and their ability at a handful of opportune moments to project qualities we admire and respect." -Meg Greenfield, Newsweek Magazine

A Presidential debate is not an intellectual exercise - neither a lecture, nor speech. It is a communication experience where we gain the measure of the man – where we experience his (or her) confidence, trust, and believability more by behavior than words.

The first Presidential debate is a vivid example. Mitt Romney’s acknowledged “victory” over President Obama was not so much what he said, but how he said it. And what he did. Here are the behavioral contrasts that stood out – in order of importance, as there is so much more one could say.

  • Energy – We often say, “Communication rides energy.” and it couldn’t have been more evident. Romney was Mr. High Energy - voice vibrant, expressive face, and gestures wide. Obama, on the other hand, was surprisingly subdued, with his head often down, and he stayed that way for 90 minutes.
  • Eye Communication – The single most important skill, and never more apparent than in Romney looking directly at Obama when he was talking to him, AND when he was listening. Obama surprisingly looked down at his notes, and at moderator Jim Lehrer, more than he looked at Romney.
  • Verbal authority – Romney interrupted without hostility, but to make his point, or correct, or counter. He controlled the conversation.
  • Posture – Romney had a confident, forward lean, both feet on the floor even though behind a lectern. Obama was seen several times leaning against the podium with a foot raised behind him – more off balance than confident.
  • Smile – Both smiled, and smiles connect. But Romney did much more so. Obama would flash a big smile when greeting and finishing, but not much during the debate. Romney’s face was very open when questioning or making a statement – though his pursed lips when listening to Obama was a negative. Watching at home, I felt it was telling that my 7 year old said he liked Romney more. When I asked why, he said, “Because he’s funny and smiling more.” Not far off from what Chris Mathews said that if you mute these debates – you really get most of what happened in this debate.
  • Looseness – Obama is always loose. He’s an athlete who walks and gestures with an ease that is open. And it’s that loose and open vs stiff and closed that increases our trust and likeability in a person at an unconscious level. Romney’s gestures are open, but he walks with a stiff, quick pace that is, well, stiff. In the debate he didn’t have to walk, so we didn’t see his usual stiffness. Watching for 90 minutes we get a very different impression and forget the stiffness from the campaign trail.

We can all learn from watching people under pressure, making the unconscious conscious, and knowing what works to make a positive communication experience, and what doesn’t.

Stay tuned for the next debates. And watch them closely. The words are important, but behavior reigns.

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