Debate Highlights 9 Communications Lessons

Note: My one and only goal is to help build your communications skills and your org’s ability to connect. To that end, I try to remain as unbiased as possible in all content.

If you watched last week’s Romney vs. Obama debate, you know that Romney reigned as the far better communicator. Pundits and regular folks alike agreed on that, and even diehard Obama supporters had to concur.

Although you may object that action matters far more than words (I’m all for that), the way that actions are conveyed is what shapes perception in most situations.

Even though supporters of each candidate say the other was misleading in the debate, the reality isn’t clear to many of us. And it’s not likely it’ll become broadly understood in the few weeks before the election.

So political theater, like your communications, matters big time.

There’s lots for nonprofit communicators to learn from the candidates’ communications practices:

  1. Make it easy for your audience with clear, accessible language that can be absorbed in a moment. Romney kept it simple and easy to understand. Obama used complex words and sentences that required thought and attention to get. Too much work!
  2. Focus on the concrete, not the abstract. It’s the tangible specifics that are memorable, like jobs which Romney came back to again and again. Obama’s more professorial style consistently wandered towards the abstract which is hard to get and seldom memorable. But he hit it out of the park with the 42-student classroom story.
  3. Repetition, repetition, repetition. I’m left with a memory of Romney’s focus on jobs, because he came back to jobs again and again. Repetition ensures your messages penetrate.
  4. Less is usually more. Romney spoke in short sentences, most with a single focus. Obama’s meandering sentences hid his key points.
  5. Communicate with confidence. If you want your audience to have confidence in your organization, you have to start with having confidence yourselves. Romney was clearly in command. He overlooked the protests of moderator Jim Lehrer to seize the right moments to counter Obama. Obama seemed nervous, spoke straight to the camera rather than to his opponent and frequently looked down at his notes.
  6. Be prepared. You have to be ready to respond to anything, quickly and effectively. Obama was clearly the butting ram last week, trying to respond to Romney’s string of accusations, none of which should have been a surprise. Nor did Obama run with some of the opportunities he had for a powerful rebuttal—He could have turned Romney’s plan to de-fund PBS into a strong rally for strengthening the education system.
  7. Stay positive. It’s human nature to affiliate with the positive because we  want things to get better. So even though Romney was vague about some of his plans, he framed them in a positive way that made the audience want to believe. Focus on the future your organization and your supporters are going to create, and how it will benefit them.
  8. Watch body language, expression and appearance. Romney smiled through much of the debate, appearing energized, hearty and relaxed. His frequent gesture of reaching out with both hands connected him with the audience. Obama’s slumped shoulders and grim facial expressions conveyed defeat and discomfort. His vertical hand gestures conveyed how difficult the path to recovery will be. Click on the drawing of each candidate’s gesture here to see examples from last week’s debate.
  9. Take off the gloves, when required. Romney was aggressive, taking every opportunity to jump on Obama. That’s what debating is all about. Obama never attacked, avoiding mention of potential Romney negatives  as well as his own successes.

Audiences aren’t usually there at the moment of action, so your communications about those actions shape your supporters’  understanding and point of view. Follow these guidelines, staying honest and genuine, to be on top of your communications game.

Do you agree with this take? What additional communications guidelines did you take away from the debate? Please share your thoughts here.

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Nancy Schwartz on October 4, 2012 in Strategy | 23 comments
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  • Very astute analysis, though I disagree that Romney was easy to understand — I think if you weren’t a wonk coming into the debate, you left completely boggled about both candidates’ actual proposals/ policy ideas. Then again, I’m not sure either candidate’s goal was to be a clear communicator, versus a persuasive one…

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Thanks, Amanda. Agree completely on the wonky but I still found Romney must easier to understand, and remember. Think relative!

  • Lori Moss

    Good, unbiased analysis, and good tips. I believe that the primary reason Romney triumphed last night was because he, above all things, exhibited his desire to foster and facilitate collaborative effort, including reaching across party lines. He did it with his words (often referring to his marked success in his own state, which is overwhelmingly Democratic), and his actions (positive-looking, smiling, receptive, attentive). I think that content is vital, but context and presentation is what ultimately drives it all home (or, in Obama’s case, fails to). Thanks!

  • Great post Nancy. I especially like the tip to focus on the concrete, tangible things. I think the success of charity:water and DonorsChoose is a testament to this. But all nonprofits can communicate in the same clear, concrete way.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    You bet they can, Holly! I think what often is that nonprofit communicators try to 1) Share too much at once instead of breaking it down into digestible bites, 2) Find comfort in “professional” language – a.k.a. jargon, and 3) Are fearful of dumbing down their org’s work and impact.

    If you don’t get tangible, you don’t connect. Be Fearless, as the Case Foundation folks say!

  • Damien

    There is no doubt that Romney was the more aggressive and energetic speaker primarily because he needed to be. I do think substance and clarity ultimately trumps style and it’s yet to be seen from Romney. Obama did have a clearer message but lacked focus and did not capitalize on Romney’s lack of any real plan aside from his often repeated proposals.. It will be interesting to see how the two will adapt their message and style going forward.

  • Ruth

    So … you’re advise is to be clear and lie. “Misrepresenting facts” is a bit of an understatement. Will the real Mitt Romney please stand up. I do agree that Obama lost the debate for your stated reasons, particularly #4 and #10.

  • RhondaR

    For an analysis that is supposed to be focused on communication styles and tips I think you put a large amount of your personal bias into the article. Putting in that Big Bird will disappear if a federal subsidy is cut, using words like manhandled for Romney and more-professional for Obama – I think you’re teaching another communication skill with this write up – how to couch a political agenda in what at first glance might seem like an objective analysis. If you’re intention was to say that you are an Obama supporter and your readers should be too – then your writing accurately communicated the message. If you didn’t mean to say that then you may want to consider an editor or proof-reader that has a different take on things to keep your writing balanced.

  • Tiane

    I have to agree with the comment before mine – your bias is obvious! (and don’t worry too much about Big Bird – the franchise of Sesame Street made $139M so I think they will survive). However, your points were excellent! Very good communication pointers.

  • Faith Adams

    Politically, it was very biased.

  • nancy

    This might be your best communication lesson yet, for all of us. Don’t mix your business with your personal views on politics EVER. It always turns sour. Your obvious bias in your last two pieces have tainted your effectiveness of any future email blast.

  • Good post, Nancy. The only other point I might add — and it’s implicit in what you wrote — is to remember who your audience is. It seemed that Obama was trying to convince Jim Lerher or an imaginary editorial board of his points, rather than the American people. Most of us don’t want a detailed discussion of complex policy nuances. We want a moving, visual account of where we are and where we’re going.


  • Kathy Widenhouse

    The lessons nonprofits can learn from the debate are time-tested — and you stated them clearly. To dig a little deeper and add one more, I think it’s crucial to stay on message.

  • Thanks, Zach, for adding this key point. It’s about your audiences!

  • You bet, Kathy. Thanks for adding that key point.

  • To Tiane, RhondaR, and nancy,

    My one and only goal is to help build your communications skills and your org’s ability to connect.

    To that end, I try to remain as unbiased as possible in all content.

    Nancy Schwartz

  • caseye

    When I first read the headline for this piece on communications, I was excited to get your analysis. As I kept reading, however, I was very dismayed that you thought it was o.k. to include your extremely pro-Obama stance regarding the debate and the points covered. The blessing: two important lessons learned. One, about the styles both candidates used to convey their thoughts and ideas. Two, how those thoughts and ideas can be presented to audiences through personal biased framing. I expected better from you.

  • Kari Peterson

    Nancy may have a political bias, but the points she makes are clear and absolute. The story is, how did Romney, who was on the ropes, win, and Obama, who could easily have been a dignified, confident presidential presence on that stage and run simply on his record (and the fallacies of Romney’s), lose? This was a no-brainer, no-lose proposition for Obama. How did Romney come from way behind and get an historical bounce in the polls, based on a 90-minute performance? Exactly the way Nancy points out here; it was classic good communication tactics, plus bad communication, miscommunication, and missed opportunities on the other side. Everything she highlights here, regardless of her political bent, is useful and astute.

  • Paul Lauenstein

    Very good analysis. Sad to say that style trumps veracity, but that’s the point, and it’s a good lesson for anyone trying to promote their ideas.

  • Diana

    I think your suggestions are somewhat on target but I agree your personal bias definitley cloud your analysis. To say that we are not intelligent enough to understand OBama’s complex thoughts and details was an insult. I think in any presentation we should not insult one’s intelligence. If it is evident that we are loosing someone than you adjust your presentation. I for one find the arrogance of Romney offensive and tend to tune him out because of that. OBama’s sincerity is appealing and tends to draw people in! If I had to rate these candidates based on speaking styles OBama wins hands down!

  • Vickey

    Please re-read the post carefully. Nancy didn’t say “professional”, she said “professorial”. And she didn’t say “manhandled”, she said “aggressive”. That sort of sloppiness weakens your case. You also apparently missed Nancy’s point “Follow these guidelines, staying *honest* and genuine…”

    As someone who is deeply dissatisfied with both candidates, I thought Nancy’s analysis was pretty objective. If she had crowned Romney king, then would his obvious supporters have been satisfied? It’s hard to see how anything less would have pleased some here.

  • Tracy Moavero

    “To say that we are not intelligent enough to understand OBama’s complex thoughts and details was an insult.” That’s not what Nancy said. She said his style of presenting those points was the problem, and I agree. I have a hard time believing most people could accurately repeat the core tax policy points because they were buried in jargon and numbers. I handle communications relating to tax policy, and both candidates left my head spinning, though Romney more so because he spoke like he’d downed a case of Red Bull. Voters aren’t well served by info that only hard core tax wonks could understand.

  • Big Bird

    Obama killed bin Laden, Really? According to “No Easy Day” exactly what the members of Seal Team Six were afraid of.

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