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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