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Welcome to the sixth issue of our free E-Zine, People Skills for Skilled People!

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[Each national election year, Communication Excellence Institute issues press releases immediately following the Presidential and Vice Presidential debates, commenting on the candidates’ communication styles. This year, we are assessing Senator John Kerry’s and President George W. Bush’s performance in the First Round of Presidential Debates as part of our People Skills for Skilled People E-Zine. We work hard to not take a political position for or against either participant. We’re only looking at their nonverbal communication.]

  Who Won the First Presidential Debate?

Are debating skills valuable for leaders? You bet, especially if you decide to run for President of the United States. USA Today (September 30, 2004) quotes Scott Deatherage, head of the Northwestern University debate team, winner of six of the last ten national championships: “We teach how to make decisions under pressure and in a timely fashion.” USA Today goes on to say that voters are drawn to the Bush vs. Kerry Round One debate “to get a glimpse of how the candidates react under pressure and how well they can identify with the audience.” 

Identifying with the audience is more important than we might originally think. In debate, as in many other communication interactions, it’s not so much what you say as how you say it.

Jan Palmer’s own career in communication began as a high school debate coach. Her students, many of them beginning debaters, won most of their debate tournaments by trouncing their opponents on “speaker points,” credits granted by the judges for the debaters’ style and ability to connect with the audience. In fact, Jan has fond memories of the time almost four decades ago, when the debate team she coached won the District trophy in the final round by beating a promising young debater from a rival high school, named Hillary Rodham.

So it is with much interest that Jan and I watched John Kerry and George Bush debate each other last night in the first Presidential Debate. 

As both candidates affirmed, they both care deeply about America. And they spent the 1-1/2 hours outlining their positions in support of our country. They were also both gracious in their introductions. 

These two candidates exhibit very different communication styles. Verbally, John Kerry relied heavily on logical argument. This involved speaking in relatively long rationally based sentences with compelling arguments, which can sometimes lose the ear of the average hearer. Kerry exhibited a lot of polish and eloquence. Bush relied on short sentences with major pauses between them that appeal to most people’s attention spans and receptivity. He is less eloquent than Kerry, but may appeal to more voters.

Nonverbally, John Kerry and George Bush both did things that helped and hindered their messages. As on other occasions, John Kerry has a habit of leaning his head toward his left shoulder and looking at his questioner out of the right corner of his eyes. This can be associated with insincerity or evasiveness. He also gestures very well, in the main, unlike President Bush who leaves his hands relatively invisible behind the lectern, potentially sending the message of untrustworthiness or deceptiveness.

Kerry also exhibits what we call parallel gestures, where hands move symmetrically as though a mirror were set between them. This gesture pattern makes someone look unsure, as though the speaker were fighting for stability. In addition, Kerry sometimes mirrored fists, a generally negative gesture because it suggests combativeness. On the other hand, Kerry gestured with his palms upward conveying a message of openness. Generally, Bush did not gesture much at all, although he leaned into the audience, conveying approachability. Bush’s lack of gestures sent a message of secretiveness and non-disclosure.

Both of them exhibited the pattern of gesturing toward their chests. This communicates caring and personal commitment.

The two candidates demonstrated very different listening patterns. Kerry looked at Bush with his head straight and a reasonably pleasant face, but Bush kept an oddly titled head, with a tight-lipped expression when listening to Kerry. Clearly, Kerry listened more effectively in a nonverbal sense.

Neither candidate talked through a smile much. This would have made a better impression for both candidates, who each might have profitably shown the ability to “lighten up.”

Both candidates hit key words in their sentences. Bush had the advantage over Kerry in that he spoke in shorter sentences, which made key words stand out more. This feature of speech is critical in conveying the impression of definitiveness. Bush paused more than Kerry, although Kerry made major strides toward speaking in shorter sentences (compared to his previous major addresses). Kerry paused less between major clauses. Does more pausing make Bush more, or less, Presidential? That is for each voter to decide. Communication specialists say pausing, in general, is good as long as the pauses are not too long. What do you think? Kerry’s pauses could never be considered too long, but Bush’s might. 

Both participants used the finger-pointing gesture more than they should, Kerry more than Bush. This can send a definitive, but sometimes overstated or preachy message. Presenters are well advised to substitute the whole hand for finger-pointing.

Both of the participants also exhibited an oddly disempowering gesture pattern. When you keep your upper arms close to your upper body, you take up less body space. In the main, this sends a message that you feel unsure of yourself. These two people are hardly disempowered. Why send that message? Where were their advisors on this one?

Who won? President Bush had the advantage of looking more confident because he has spent so much time with world leaders and has had many opportunities to build his confident presence. Kerry seemed amazingly “in charge” and comfortable, despite his relative disadvantage in experience. Based on a level playing field, Kerry seemed to have the overall advantage in the first Presidential Debate.

What the debate meant for all of us is the sheer power of nonverbal communication in someone’s message—in this case, of two of the most powerful people in the world. But this same power is at your and our disposal as well. Use it wisely.

Yours in great communication,

Jan and Neal Palmer

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