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The Presidential Debate: Critique From A Communications Expert

Updated: Feb 25



The Presidential Debate - Using Leadership Communications Strategy

The rules of effective communication are amplified in a debate scenario. Debaters have a limited amount of time to deliver responses and must advance their objectives while responding to the opponents’ comments. Brevity is key. Concise statements packed with meaning, that strike a chord with audiences, are the way to win. In a sense, a debate is not unlike a high stakes media interview where the spokesperson attempts to control the narrative and persuade audiences.


In the case of the debate between President Donald Trump and Vice President Joe Biden, the protocols established by the governing body broke down as described in this story in The National Post. Incessant interruptions by Trump increased the debate’s difficulty level. It also deteriorated the effectiveness of debating as a method to present ideas and persuade the audience. The inability to adhere to usual debate protocols made it more difficult for the audience to be clear on each candidate's platform and diminished its ability to determine which candidate’s policies were most compelling.



How to prepare your communications strategy by example


As with any communications strategy, a successful debating strategy comes down to extensive preparation. First, begin by listing the hot button issues. The ones that your audience cares most about. Your opponent won’t be highlighting controversies they’ve caused, so it’s up to you to raise those points. A typical approach would be to name the most controversial issues in soundbite format so it’s short, packed with meaning, and triggers a response in the listener. Then alleviate the audience’s concern with a strong, clear, positive statement on how you would manage it more effectively. Enhance your argument by referencing your past wins in similar situations. This attacks your opponent’s approach, provides an alternate option, and builds credibility for it’s potential. This is how to create tension while inspiring a more positive vision of the future.


How to improve communications style


Effective communication is rooted in sharing ideas in a simple, compelling, and motivating way. People are more easily influenced when they feel something. Making emotional connections is a proven way to persuade. There are many tips and tricks on how to communicate effectively. In the case of a presidential debate, candidates share their vision which will impact the lives of the audience. For this reason, it is important that your communications style is relatable for your audience. Keeping concepts simple, understandable, and memorable is a surefire way to be more engaging with listeners. It also helps them recall and tell their friends the points that resonated the most. Real life anecdotes help a politician be more relatable. Demonstrating that you understand your audience’s priorities, concerns and needs is a winning approach in communications.


Donald Trump and Joe Biden, have opposing communication styles. Donald Trump’s debate style was to disregard rules, interrupt frequently, and disrupt the debate process rather than focusing on meaningful information about his platform. After hearing Donald Trump’s comments in the debate, it was difficult to recount what policies he would pursue if elected to a second term and how those policies would impact everyday Americans.


Joe Biden’s approach was to focus more on policy and his vision for America. Although it was challenging, Biden was able to better articulate his platform. His ideas for America were more clear and easier to recollect than his opponent’s were. His tone was more calm and collected. Biden made more effort to convey his concern for everyday Americans because he focused more on their concerns and priority issues, offering solutions.


When it comes to policy, Trump is polarizing. News reports indicate that the majority of Americans disagree with many controversial policies as outlined in this PEW research. For this reason, a smart strategy for Joe Biden could have been to come armed with strong statements to identify and attack the policies that Americans disagree with. Remember, a nationally televised debate or any public speaking opportunity must be used to achieve your objectives. If you know many policies are unfavourable, calling out the most egregious creates emotional tension and allows the speaker to offer a more inspirational alternative. This method is very persuasive because it distills complex issues into a more binary choice that is easier to make. It discredits the opponent while promoting your platform. Identifying the lightning rod issues, articulating them in a simple and compelling way, and offering an equally simple and compelling alternative creates a contrast that makes the audience’s choice more clear.


The more distilled your message, the easier it is to communicate and for audiences to understand and recall - no matter how much you are interrupted. Additionally, skilled orators know that they are in full control. They have their narrative determined in advance and rather than getting caught up addressing every interruption, they can stay focused on the narrative by using bridging techniques. Bridging is the action of quickly acknowledging your opponents comment but moving on rapidly to the story you want to tell. The story that will show your audience that your approach is aligned with their ideals and what they want in a leader.


Leadership Communications


There were many opportunities in the Trump/Biden presidential debate to demonstrate leadership communication skills. The most important leadership quality is accountability. Trump’s reluctance to take responsibility is well documented. It’s another weak point to exploit in a debate. One method of exploiting this leadership weakness is to provoke a blame response from your opponent and then to tell the audience you’re fully committed to accountability. Providing examples of how you would demonstrate leadership is a great way to build credibility. An article in Industry Week highlights the main characteristics of accountable leaders. It includes holding others accountable for high standards of performance, tackling tough issues, making difficult decisions, having strong communications capabilities, and expressing optimism about the future. These are all things that can and should be conveyed in the context of a debate or any time you have an audience, such as an important meeting, a speaking engagement, or a media interview. This may come to you as a surprise but many, if not all political leaders go through extensive leadership communications training to master these skills.


How Bulletproof Can Help

Bulletproof is a communications agency that provides media training services and effective communications strategies to help individuals and organizations achieve their objectives. The team consists of strategists, trainers, and journalists who understand the media, and the importance of public relations and communications to obtain desired goals.


Bulletproof media training is led by Tara McCarthy who has over 20 years of experience in building reputations and is an expert in strategic communications, public relations, and media training. The Bulletproof team of veteran strategists and trainers can teach you or your company how to write an informed communications strategy, designed to advance your objectives.


If you or your company need media training assistance, please do not hesitate to contact Bulletproof, where services are available in English and French.






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