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Welcome to the seventh 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. Today, we are assessing Senator John Edwards’ and Vice President Dick Cheney’s performances in the Vice Presidential Debate 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.]

The Vice Presidential Candidates:
How Did They Do?

In Presidential debates, as well as the Vice Presidential debates, the big question always is “Who won?”. We leave that issue to the political commentators. Verbally, Cheney may have carried the day, but in terms of nonverbal communication, John Edwards won in about the first five minutes. 

These two candidates exhibited opposite energy patterns. Edwards’ is extraverted; Cheney’s is introverted. The issue is the locus of energy—Cheney’s “performance” took place in a 45° angle between his eyes and the table top. Edwards, on the other hand, directed the locus of his performance at a 90° angle, reaching out to the moderator, the audience, and (symbolically) to the American people. 

The difference was apparent from the very beginning. When introduced, Edwards projected a large sincere smile. Cheney gave a gesture toward the moderator and a perfunctory smile. Cheney began a pattern of body language that persisted throughout the debate. He sat hunched forward, leaning on his elbows (tying up two of his most powerful communication channels—his arms and hands). He sat wringing his hands in what we often call the “prayer” gesture. When he gestured (always in parallel, which suggests less confidence), he never lifted his hands or arms off the table. Cheney compounded the felony by speaking through that clenched hand gesture. Edwards also showed a hands-clasped-in-front-of-me gesture (which is always seen as submissive) but occasionally exhibited open non-parallel gestures, reaching out to the audience. Non-parallel gestures always suggest more confidence. Moreover, Edwards lifted his hands off the table occasionally, demonstrating more energy and persuasiveness. Edwards would be well advised to do much more of this; Cheney should do any of this he can. 

As we speak about parallel and non-parallel gestures, we must go on record saying that both Vice Presidential candidates demonstrated parallel gestures most of the time. This is a pattern we saw much in evidence in the first Presidential debate. Parallel gestures normally convey the notion that a person is feeling uncomfortable or disempowered. Here, however, it may simply come about because of the stress inherent in the situation. Edwards capitalized on the situation (probably unconsciously) by speaking in parallel sentences (“the failure to plan, the failure to involve others,” etc.).

Edwards accented his points by using the “eyebrow flash,” which means that both eyebrows are raised simultaneously. As strange as this term sounds, the gesture opens the face, and is a great replacement for a smile (which Cheney would have been well advised to show more often). Edwards frequently “talked through a smile.” This doesn’t mean grinning all the time. Nor does it mean smiling when inappropriate. ”Talking through a smile” means exhibiting a pleasant expression in your day-to-day communication, even on neutral subjects. Edwards uses it to convey positive energy. 

While Cheney is extremely fluent, he spoke in long sentences within a narrow band of infection. Edwards has discovered (again probably unconsciously) the magic of speaking in short sentences and stressing key words in those sentences. (For more on this, download our issue of People Skills for Skilled People entitled RSVP: How to Turn a Boring Speaker into an Interesting One in Ten Minutes or Less! from our website www.talk2cei.com). Listeners can follow speakers better when there is variety in their delivery, although we always appreciate a fluent communicator.

The agreed-upon “rules” for this Vice Presidential Debate required that both debaters sit, a decision that favors Vice President Cheney. The sitting position highlights the issue of personal space. Both candidates failed to make the most of their personal space while seated. Each man should have taken up much more body space than he did. Ideally, a powerful person who sits at a table spreads his or her arms further out to command more body space. The purpose would be to reflect the power that they currently have (Cheney) or wish to have (Edwards). More powerful people take up more body space.

Want to know how they did? Watch Saturday Night Live later this week. You’ll see an exaggeration of every gesture they exhibited, but those mimicries are all grounded in the candidates’ actual gestures. 

To summarize, Cheney prefers closed, introverted gestures, while Edwards demonstrates more of the opposite—open, extraverted nonverbal behavior. 

Does this mean that one or the other would be a better Vice President? No one can say. But in terms of voter appeal, for the last 50 years, since the days of “I Like Ike,” Americans have elected their Chief Executive based on likeability rather than respectability. Edwards, the more likeable of the two Vice Presidential candidates, may give his ticket a boost in likeability it could use.

Yours in great communication,

Jan and Neal Palmer

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