Debates provide crucial lessons —

from which all leaders can benefit

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October 7, 2020 Senator Harris and Vice President Pence debate (Getty Images)

By JD Schramm

Most of us will not likely participate in a presidential (or VP) debate, but all of us can learn from the best (and worst) practices we witnessed in the first debate between President Trump and former Vice President Biden and only debate between Vice President Pence and Senator Kamala Harris. Without taking sides (or sharing my own views on the race) I wanted to call out some of the lessons that can benefit all leaders.

Prepare fully — while the campaigns varied in their preparation tactics, all four candidates understood the weight of the debate. It’s crucial to invest time in advance for a high stakes conversation or presentation. One of my favorite simple, yet elegant, tools for this preparation is to consider the AIM triangle developed by Russell and Munter. First, consider your audience (primary and secondary) and your intent (as a result of this conversation what do you want them to do) before finally moving to message (what’s the memorable content you want to deliver to cause the audience to take the action you desire). Each candidate appeared to be tackling a different audience, and neither seemed to consider his opponent to be the audience. Trump appeared to focus on reaching his base with an intent of securing their support and driving turnout. Biden seemed to be trying to reach undecided voters with a direct appeal to examine the differences between the two men and then vote for him. While pundits and voters may disagree about the success of either candidates’ strategy, it’s clear both tried to achieve their strategic goals in front of a national audience.

The two VP candidates had the benefit of seeing the impact of their respective leaders’ performances and the accompanying punditry. Both seemed to adhere to the first rule of VP debates, “do no harm” to the ticket. Both, in my view, also seemed to focus on the primary audience of uncommitted voters, but the clear secondary audience of one: the top of their respective tickets. Both were clear to quote, restate, and extend positions their nominees took (or tried to take) in the first debate.

Expect and address interruptions — was evident across both evenings. While Trump and Pence have been most widely criticized for interrupting, Biden and Harris exhibited the same behavior. In our meetings it may not be as egregious as we saw in these two televised debates, but undoubtedly it will still occur. Leaders have a choice of trying to continue on without acknowledging the interruption (Biden tried this a few times), directly challenging the interrupter (all did this on occasion), or scolding your opponent (as Harris attempted several times). No strategy is perfect, but if we guide ourselves back to our core message and try our best to not get adversarial we may stand the best chance of being heard out. Several studies dating back to 1975 show that women are more likely to be interrupted by men in the US. This played out particularly in the VP debate where both the moderator and one of the nominees were women and experienced interruptions by Vice President Pence. While one can prepare for these interruptions, it may also be useful to consider the “long game” that leaders who consistently interrupt others create a reputation for themselves. While it may not lose a debate or an election, it may have longer term negative impacts inside regular working groups or employee circles.

Look directly at your camera — particularly in these days of endless Zoom meetings, it’s crucial to know precisely where your camera is, and to look directly at the camera from time to time. Biden accomplished this connection on a handful of occasions, while Trump mostly looked at the moderator or his opponent. My clients and students know my favorite trick for this…a pair of craft store “googly eyes” mounted on either side of my camera. These remind me to look at the camera, and not at the images of those in the video conference with me. Whatever technique you use, remember direct eye contact is gold and makes a clear impression on those you are addressing.

Have a sustained and consistent message — we can recall the chorus of a song, because we hear it multiple times. Trump clearly wanted to paint Biden as a long-term politician who has been ineffective throughout his career. On six different occasions he said some version of “for 47 years you’ve done nothing.” The most memorable was probably the line where he compared his own tenure with the former Vice President’s. “Hey, Joe, let me just tell you, Joe. In 47 months, I’ve done more than you’ve done in 47 years.” Both the alliteration and repetition made this particular moment sticky for his audience. From the Biden side it does not appear a single, repeated, phrase arose as vividly. Again, reviewing the transcript, he did mention the word “vote” at least 28 times, and, depending on how you count it, invited viewers to vote up to as many as 17 times. So that, in my view, may be his most enduring message. Consider again, if Biden’s primary audience were undecided voters this appeal may align directly with his strategy. The VP candidates picked up on these messages, but not to the same extent. Senator Harris carried the “please vote” torch on a couple of different occasions and Pence also had two references to Vice President Biden’s 47 years of public service.

Smiles can carry great weight — even more than smirks or scowls. My dad used to always tell me “you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” It’s particularly hard to divorce partisan punditry from the facts on this issue, but Biden was seen smiling broadly several times, telegraphing the “happy warrior” image which has been part of his hallmark reputation. Conversely, it appears the only smiles the audience saw from Trump were smirks accompanying particularly caustic interjections. Ideally none of our business meetings will be as acrimonious as the debate, but we’d all do well to “talk less, smile more” as the line from Hamilton encourages. When conversations begin to edge toward conflict, look at your own image on Zoom and ensure you are portraying an image of warmth and openness. Even simply saying “I’m glad we can be so candid with each other” or “I don’t enjoy these arguments, but I appreciate how it lets us get the issues out so we can resolve them.” The Pence/Harris debate saw a mix of smiles and lip-pursing from the vice president and a consistent smile (as noted above) from Senator Harris when she was most annoyed.

Try listening to make your point — While not possible for Biden or Trump in this setting, all of us can recall times in meetings where we knew we should have listened more, and more effectively. Instead of lobbing a sharp reply try asking a simple open-ended question (without anger on our face) to diffuse a potentially hostile discussion. “Wow. Tell me more about that? Is there a customer experience you can share with us so we understand this better?” Come at disagreements with a goal of genuine curiosity, not a desire to win the battle and you may be surprised at the outcome. Many times our colleagues may just need to be heard. As Thomas Friedman recently wrote: “It’s important what you learn when you listen. It’s even more important what you say when you listen.”

Shouting rarely works — particularly in the long-term. We witnessed both presidential candidates raising their voices to be heard. As parents and managers alike know, shouting may have some short-term benefit, but in the long-term it paints us a yeller, not a leader. When we build our reputation as a screamer, fewer people want to work with us and ultimately work for us. As the adage goes, people don’t leave bad companies, they leave bad bosses. Shouting down your colleagues may “win” a single argument, but with each subsequent encounter we reinforce our lack of collaboration and respect. If we lose our tempers, the medium may become the message, and we’ve lost control of our message.

You cannot NOT communicate — these debates are particularly challenging because, like many of our Zoom calls, the candidates were never “off stage.” In fact the non-verbal communication offered while listening to their opponents was often more telling than their words. Several analysts, for example, have noted that Senator Harris continually smiled when she was upset, ensuring that a frown or scowl never appeared. As Robin Givhan noted in the Washington Post “…studiously refraining from frowning or giving the impression that she was angry because being angry and Black is treading into treacherous water in our culture of inequality.”

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AP Photo/Julio Cortez

Perhaps no moment across either of the two debates captured the public’s attention and commentary than the fly that landed on VP Pence’s head remaining for several minutes. Others have had fun at Mike Pence’s expense on this, so I won’t pile on more. The incident however powerfully reinforces that you are truly never “off stage” in moments like this. His body language, or lack thereof, became more of the story than the policies and positions that night.

After reviewing scores of “morning after” analyses from both sides of the political spectrum one thing is clear: the chaos and lack of decorum in the first debate was challenging to watch, but the lack of drama and surprise in the second was equally uninteresting. Some are calling for improved moderation, stronger rules, or even cancellation of the next two presidential debates. A number of polls reported that the first debate may have actually driven some viewers to not want to vote at all, the exact opposite outcome either campaign desires. As leaders, we can find value in the remaining debates if we look for what to emulate, and what to avoid, in our own communications whether online or in person.

JD Schramm, author of Communicate with Mastery: speak with conviction and write for impact, is a free-lance coach and communication consultant based in Silicon Valley. For over 13 years he served on the faculty at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business where he created a number of highly sought-out elective courses in communication. To contact him visit www.jdschramm.com.

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