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Welcome to the eighth 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 Second 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 Second Presidential Debate?


Just as in the first debate, the candidates exhibited very different communication styles. What was fascinating was what a difference it made when the candidates could move! Both candidates came off much more compelling and interesting than they did in the first debate, when they stood behind lecterns. (Speakers are always advised to come out from behind the lectern, if they possibly can.) 

Bush, in particular, seems far better away from a lectern. Bush employed a more “strolling” style, with highly fluid movement. Generally speaking, strolling is not advised for speakers; the idea is that excellent speakers should move to signal new sections of their speeches, but should stand still in the speaker’s stance while they are talking to a particular point. President Bush’s strolling, though, sent a message of casualness and approachability. Senator Kerry walked a lot also, but always returned to his “speaker’s stance” (toes flared out slightly, heels about 6 inches apart with weight evenly distributed on both feet). Using the speaker’s stance enhanced his executive image, although he tended to “stomp” in it and readjust it often, which we would have advised him not to do. Bush’s pacing made him come off more human, while Kerry’s stance helped him appear more executive. Which is better? Both have their advantages and disadvantages. It all depends on the message the candidate wants to convey: approachability (Bush) or solidity (Kerry).

Both candidates projected well vocally. Bush boosted his speaking volume considerably over that in the first debate. Both candidates stressed key words, making them easy to follow. Speakers who use slightly higher volume come off as more confident and credible; both candidates earned this honor. Hitting key words in their messages (which both speakers did) contributed to their assertiveness and effectiveness.

We only got a portion of both candidates’ arm gestures because one of their hands had to be tied up holding a microphone. Using hand-held microphones at least kept the candidates from exhibiting the parallel gestures seen in the previous debate that tended to make the them look stiff, over-rehearsed, or nervous. One interesting difference (and we do not make a symbolic interpretation here) is that Kerry held the microphone in his left hand and gestured with his right, while Bush held the microphone with his right hand, gesturing with his left. 

Kerry used mostly open-palm gestures toward the questioners, but too often his hands turned into fists. Fists are generally not advised (they look combative), any more than pointing finger gestures (which Kerry also used quite often). Bush tended to use an open-hand gesture, which is generally seen as more positive. President Bush gestured well from the shoulders, even shrugging his shoulders at one point to make a connection with the audience. Shoulder gestures indicate a person’s taking up more body space, and hence projecting more personal power and confidence.

Bush committed an arm-gesturing “glitch,” when he allowed his left arm (the one not holding the microphone) to flop down when returning it to his side. This can convey a message of disinterest or indecisiveness that would contradict the message Bush is trying so hard to reinforce: consistency and determination. When we coach a speaker on his or her gestures, we make every effort to show speakers that their energy should go all the way out to their fingertips. When their gestures drop down to their sides, speakers should not let those gestures flop, slapping their sides, or swaying back and forth listlessly (as Bush did), but rather should have full energy involved in the release. The same energy that accompanied the gesture itself should also be employed as it is released. 

Kerry knows the power of a smile, but unfortunately Bush doesn’t seem to. As they came in and shook hands, Kerry gave Bush a large smile, but it was not reciprocated.

Both candidates exhibited effective listening behaviors. Bush’s smirk when listening (as we saw in Miami) kept trying to break through, but he seemed to use a lot of willpower and discipline to prevent it. Because of Bush’s poor performance in the first Presidential debate, largely because of his high-affect facial expressions while listening, this debate series shows how important low affect is when listening. In this debate, Bush generally avoided the “Miami smirk,” but his excessive blinking suggested discomfort. Kerry tapped into a more “executive” communication style, namely under-reacting while listening. This served Kerry well in Miami, as in St. Louis. Generally speaking, more facial affect (responsiveness) is typically a good thing, resulting in more relational dividends, but less facial affect (a poker face) is seen as more executive. Based on this theory of nonverbal communication, Kerry seemed more executive in his facial affect and Bush seemed more approachable.

Despite his general friendliness and affability, Bush made a misstep when at one point he interrupted and argued with Charlie Gibson, the moderator, and seized the floor. This behavior, strong and overly assertive, does not demonstrate the kind of respect that Gibson had pledged would prevail in the debate. 

In terms of posture, Kerry once again exhibited a statesmanlike bearing, although he still tilted his head slightly toward his left shoulder. Not a good idea. A tilted head (in either direction) considerably reduces a speaker’s credibility. For the most part, Bush held his head straight up, which is generally perceived as more certain and direct. He also used his head movement to punctuate his points, gesturing head-forward. In addition, Bush moved his head in a rapid forward head nod at the ends of many of his remarks, nonverbally communicating “So there!” Depending on your political leanings, this could be seen as either good or bad. That nonverbal gesture is a little “in-your-face” in style. Bush used the same gesture in 2000, when his opponent Vice President Al Gore invaded his space, and he used the gesture many times in this debate with challenger Kerry.

The most noticeable difference in this debate was the contrast in the candidates’ speech patterns. Vocally, Bush projected a kind of pleading tone, accentuated by head-nodding, to reach out to the audience. Kerry relied more on a declarative tone and reasoned analysis to reach the same group. The “aw-shucks” colloquial tone perfected by Bush is clearly distinctive from Kerry’s eloquence and definitiveness.

Who won? In our opinion, nonverbally it was a draw. Both candidates represented themselves well, following their own individual communication styles. In terms of Presidential nonverbal communication, we have a distinct choice, that’s for sure. 

Yours in great communication,

Jan and Neal Palmer

P.S. We won’t be able to write a review of the last debate because we’ll be on a plane while the third debate occurs. We hope this series of People Skills for Skilled People has given you more insight into both candidates’ communication styles. Most importantly, be sure to vote! Every vote counts. 


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