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Deconstructing the Presidential Candidates' Town Hall Debate

If you watched, you know what they said (or didn't say). But do you know why they were effective? How well did they say what they said?

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The Oct. 7 town hall-style presidential debate provided yet another opportunity for Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain to create defining moments in their run for the White House.

We asked Stephanie Scotti, an executive speech coach and skills expert, to watch the debate and see what lessons could be gleaned from analyzing Obama and McCain's extemporaneous speaking styles.

Scotti looked for the senators' most effective skills, as well as those skills they lacked or used poorly during this high-stakes presentation. Attention to the clock, anyone?

Obama's Strengths: Charisma and Alignment
Obama has repeatedly been described as a charismatic speaker, but what does he do that projects this image? What he does is definable, and you can do it, too.

  1. From the moment Obama walked on stage he maintained direct either with the live audience, McCain or the moderator.

    Takeaway: Eye contact is critical to building rapport and establishing credibility. The rule of thumb is 90 percent direct, roving and continuous eye contact. Spread your gaze across the audience, remembering to engage with people at the very back, the far sides and those up front.
  2. Obama had fluidity in his movement that conveyed confidence. His stance, gestures, physical movement, as well as his voice, worked together to support his message. When he was passionate, you heard it in his vocal inflection, and you saw it in his strong posture, assertive gestures and animated facial expression.

    Takeaway: Believe in your message. When you do, your words and your body are more apt to be aligned, and you will avoid sending a potentially mixed message. An example of misalignment: If your message is one of action but your body is relaxed and casual, you send two different signals. Listeners are more likely to "hear" your non-verbal communication.
  3. Did you notice Obama's ease with the hand-held microphone? His ability to pass it back and forth allowed him to with both sides of his body. The microphone neither restricted his movement nor got in the way. It was clear this wasn't the first time he'd used a hand-held mic.

    Takeaway: Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. An assured, engaging presenter takes the time to become familiar with both the room and equipment for every presentation. This familiarity lets a speaker concentrate on the audience, not the audio-visual equipment.

McCain's Strengths: Authenticity and Accessibility
McCain's ability to roam and interact with his audience is the signature of his presentation style. He engages his audience in that manner and makes them feel involved.

  1. While both candidates used eye contact effectively, McCain also made use of his body to sweep the entire audience, affording a sense of contact with everyone in the hall. Additionally, his willingness to enter the crowd, lean on a railing to chat, shake the hand of a chief petty officer or casually rest an elbow on a chair while speaking all communicated authenticity and accessibility.

    Takeaway: Many times my clients ask, "Do I have to stay behind the podium?" No, and please don't. It is absolutely OK to walk around the room. Eye contact, movement and interaction with the audience will communicate a heartfelt conviction that immediately engages listeners.
  2. McCain made use of his sharp wit. Moderator Tom Brokaw repeatedly had to remind both candidates about their use of the allotted time. McCain acknowledged his own slip-up by adding humor, suggesting that Brokaw just wave at him when his time was up.

    Takeaway: Throw ad lib comments into your presentation--something you heard when meeting and greeting audience members, or a brief, relevant story that just occurred to you. A touch of spontaneity keeps things real and keeps you and your listeners engaged.
  3. When first up to answer a question, McCain often summarized his understanding of the question before proceeding with his response. This technique allowed McCain to connect with his audience, establish a common understanding of the question and recognize the person asking the question.

    Takeaway: When conducting a Q&A session, it's the speaker's role to ensure that questions are heard and understood by all. You may hear a question perfectly, but when necessary, repeat or paraphrase the question for the benefit of those who may not have understood.

Missed Opportunities
Both candidates could have exhibited some presentation skills a little better. They were both guilty of committing three presentation ills--a trio of my pet peeves--during this debate. These are things they should have done:

  1. Honor time constraints. Whether you have five minutes or 45, customize your presentation (or Q&A) to fit the time allowed. Respect your audience by sticking to the time allotted.
  2. Avoid clichés. During this debate we regularly heard: "That's a good question," "I'm glad you asked that," "That's the $64 question," or ".my friends." These phrases add no value and become meaningless and offensive when used repeatedly.
  3. Stay focused. Help your audience grasp your message by answering the question asked. A well-organized response is easier to absorb and far more productive than roundabout wandering.

Both men, from the standpoint of a speech coach and communication expert, demonstrated tools and techniques you can draw upon to improve your own speaking skills. Whether entrepreneurs are aiming for a standing ovation or vying to secure new business or investments, they should consider the presentation styles of our presidential candidates. You may view high-stakes presenting in a whole new light.

Stephanie M. Scotti is the founder and principal of professionally speaking. She has more than 25 years of executive speech coaching and communications/presentation skills training. Scotti has coached more than 2,500 professionals in private practices and at Fortune 500 companies, the U.S. government and international businesses. To learn more, visit To subscribe to SpeakerNotes, a monthly e-newsletter with tips and techniques to improve your speaking skills, send an e-mail

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