Local Experts Share What to Look for During the 2012 Presidential Debates

As the candidates prepare to face off, the pros share some dos and don’ts.

By: Carol Ross Joynt

The presidential debate season is upon us, with three scheduled for President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney and one for Vice President Joe Biden and GOP VP nominee Paul Ryan. If four years ago is any measure, tens of millions of potential voters will tune in. Many will have made up their minds in advance, but not all; regardless, according to experts, most will watch mainly to affirm their choice. That affirmation comes not only in the substance of answers but also in how the candidates stand, sit, talk, make eye contact, listen, smile, answer, assert, doodle, and avoid, to the best of their ability, eye-rolling, sighing, looking bored, or checking the clock.

No candidate wants to repeat anything remotely similar to one of the most memorable gaffes in presidential debate history, when President George H. W. Bush glanced at his wristwatch while Bill Clinton was answering a question. Or when Al Gore walked into George W. Bush’s personal space, or when Senator John McCain wandered the stage in a manner that inspired instant mockery on Saturday Night Live.

“The vast majority of voters have [already] made up their minds,” says Aileen Pincus, who specializes in training people to speak in public forums. Her company, the Pincus Group, is based in Silver Spring. “The debate is about how comfortable each man is in his own skin. This is why they are powerful, because we are human and we believe our own eyes and want to judge for ourselves. We know it is not really a debate in the traditional sense. It is highly rehearsed.” For that reason, she says, people look for the spontaneous moments—“something that will [show] us the authentic person.”

We asked Pincus and a few other area public speaking and debate experts what they will be looking for in the debates and what they think will have an impact on the public. Pincus says she will notice body language. “Is the smile genuine? Is it all over the face or is it a half smile? Is the smile in sync with eyes?” she says. “We all know what a genuine smile looks like. We read people. We’ve been doing this all our lives.”

Brian Callaghan, head of Callaghan & Company, used to work at the Washington Post as Katharine Graham’s speechwriter. He’s had his own in business in Washington and Maryland for 20 years, “helping politicians, lawyers, and businesspeople” with public speaking. He sees Obama and Romney as having “opposite tendencies” and has advice for both in how to present themselves in the debates. Obama, for one, needs to do more smiling. “When he smiles, he appears more comfortable and at ease, even more presidential,” says Callaghan. Romney, on the other hand, smiles too much. “And when he does that, he looks like he’s trying to sell you something.” Romney also uses his hands too much, according to Callaghan. “He can get too energetic. If he wants to come across as more thoughtful and substantive, the use of more flowing hand gestures will be compatible. When he starts to flail his hands, his thoughts begin to flail.”

The hands are key, says DC-based consultant Denise Graveline, a former magazine writer and Environmental Protection Agency deputy associate administrator who has prepped “all sorts of public officials” for panels, round tables, and other public forums. She says gestures help the thought process during a debate. “If your hands are in your pockets, if you grip the lectern too much, if your hands are clasped, you are much more likely to stumble. Use your hands. Gesturing helps your brain push the words out of your mouth.” She also pays attention to word choices, breaking them down between “concrete” and “abstract.” She says early in the election process, “abstract words are great, but closer to the vote, people want concrete words. They want to know how you are going to get things done.”

Ronald Bratt coaches high school and college students in competitive debate. He coached the debate team at Catholic University for seven years and is currently CEO of Capitol Debate, which runs debate camps in Maryland. His specialty is nonverbal skills. “Style is everything,” he says. “The most important thing Americans look for is blunders or cracking under pressure. This is a game of not making mistakes. It’s very important to not look bored, to not roll your eyes, to not look smug or disinterested—and violating personal space is a definite no-no.”

With every debate there’s that moment when the candidate has to walk out on stage, no longer harbored by a supportive staff or debate coach. Bratt says at this moment the last words he tells a debater are, “Your mind is always on thinking you are winning. No matter how poorly you are doing, you always have to say in your mind, ‘I’m winning.’” He says he trains debaters to visualize the entire debate before it happens. “The mind has a lot of control over the body. You have to really feel it.”

When asked to recall favorite presidential debaters, all four of these local experts pointed to the same two people: Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Bratt calls both of them “phenomenal,” Clinton because he had great eye contact and “when he speaks, people like him,” and Reagan for his sense of humor. “He was likable. He was an actor. A lot of debate is acting.” Pincus says Reagan and Clinton in their respective debates both “had a way of finding these moments where they could display empathy, something positive. Neither one looked mean. Even when responding to an opponent, they didn’t give the impression of bullying.”

Asked to name the worst debaters, Graveline laughs. “Do you have the time?” But she’s sympathetic to the plight of anyone facing a debate. “It is a very difficult format. You are unscripted; you’re in front of a very large audience; you’re not in control of the questions. All of those things make it difficult. You can cram all you want, but you don’t know where it’s going to go, and you are having to answer to three different sets of people: your opponent, the questioner, and the audience.”

Pincus references the most historically notorious presidential debate, the 1960 showdown between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, which has been credited with winning Kennedy the election. Those who heard or read the debate thought Nixon had won, but those who watched it on television declared Kennedy the winner. “If you look at it, you can see what people spoke about,” she says. “It wasn’t just lack of makeup [on Nixon]. He had an unfortunate tendency to narrow his eyes, and they darted around. He looked shifty. The smile was forced and unnatural.” But, she says, who knows how other presidents throughout history would have fared by judgmental modern media standards? “If we’d had television back in the day, maybe we’d be saying Lincoln wasn’t a great debater.”

All the debates run from 9 to 10:30 PM and will be carried live by the major networks and streamed online. The full schedule is below.

First presidential debate: Wednesday, October 3
Theme: domestic policy
Location: University of Denver, Denver, Colorado

Vice-presidential debate: Thursday, October 11
Themes: foreign and domestic policy
Location: Centre College, Danville, Kentucky

Second presidential debate: Tuesday, October 16
Themes: Town hall format, foreign and domestic policy
Location: Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York

Third presidential debate: Monday, October 22
Theme: foreign policy
Location: Lynn University, Boca Raton, Florida