How To Ace A Debate? Ask The Pros Behind The Politicians
Election campaigns are scripted. Every TV ad, every email, every stump speech, every meet-and-greet: It's all planned down to the most minute detail.
And then, there are the debates. The debate stage can create breakout moments that go down in political history — but even the most well-practiced one-liners can fall flat on delivery.
"Those moments, they can't seem canned. They have to seem natural, and they have to come from the candidate's heart rather than their head," says Brett O'Donnell, a political communications consultant who has been helping prep Sen. Lindsay Graham and did debate prep with former President George W. Bush.
"They see election appearances," O'Donnell says of voters, "they see campaign events, they see television ads, all of those things — they know those are controlled. Those are staged, but debates, in their minds, are not staged. They're those places where candidates have to ask tough questions and think quickly on their feet."
So, how do candidates prepare for an event that's as crucial in voters' minds as it is difficult to plan?
On this week's For the Record, NPR's Rachel Martin speaks with O'Donnell and Chris Jahnke, who works with female Democratic candidates at all levels, to find out a few debate do's and dont's — which the Democratic presidential candidates might do well to remember at Saturday night's debate in New Hampshire.
Here's what the pros behind the politicians have to say.
Click the audio link above to hear the full piece.
... neglect the details.
In the lead-up to the debate, it's best to sweat the little things.
"Are you going to be standing or seated?" Jahnke asks. Will there be a lectern or not? Will it be wooden or plexiglass? Do you want water? What type of microphone?"
Brett O'Donnell says sometimes he even recreates what the set will look like.
"You know, a walkthrough that they get for 15 minutes the day of the debate doesn't really do it, because those lights are very very bright — and I mean that literally and figuratively," he says. "The pressure of a presidential debate is beyond measure."
... make stuff up — but also, never say, "I don't know."
"Answering a question with 'I don't know' — while it might be the honest answer — it's a devastating answer," O'Donnell says. "We expect our presidents to know. We expect them to have the answers."
... start whining.
"Just like there is no crying in baseball," Jahnke says. "There should be no whining on the debate stage."
Instead, work on polishing the fine art of interjection.
"What I suggest is, everybody's got to come up for air. And when your opponent takes a breath, that's the moment to step in, and the best way to do that is to play off the moderator," Jahnke says, offering an example: " 'Well, Anderson, let me add to that or even better, Anderson, I disagree, and let me tell you why.' "
... forget about your body language.
"My very first candidate that I worked with was George W. Bush," O'Donnell recalls. "The very first debate in 2004, in Miami, was a disaster for him on the body language front. He laid on the podium, he sighed. And because of that he was viewed as the loser of that first debate."
... commit to the "champion stance."
Contrary to what your phys ed teacher may have told you in school, standing with feet shoulder-width apart is not the best bet for all situations — debates least of all.
"That allows you to sway," Jahnke says, "and on camera, you can appear as if you are speaking from the deck of the Titanic, and it may look like the boat's going down."
So, she proposes instead what she calls the "champion stance." That means putting one foot in front of the other, with weight on the back leg. And it may seem obvious, but make sure you're standing up straight.
"The best way to achieve that standing at a lectern is to rest your fingertips right on the edge, because it positions your arms so that the shoulders will drop back," Jahnke says. "You can see what happens with my shoulders: It improves my posture."
... take the attack to your rivals — a bit indirectly.
Care to take a good swing at one or several of your opponents? Both Jahnke and O'Donnell recommend that, while you're on offense, you should avoid turning your head toward the person you're attacking.
"When you turn away from the camera, again it becomes something between you and this person, and you're losing direct eye contact with the audience at home," says Jahnke.
"When you look at someone you're paying attention to them, which means that you can look subservient to them," O'Donnell adds. "So, in order to command that stage you'll look straight out at the audience. Besides, you're never going to convince your opponent, so you don't look at them."