By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm
Amid the spin and analysis in the immediate aftermath of last night's lead-off Presidential Debate, much of the reaction is focused on appearance and style, with some wondering if Obama was on the receiving end of a kind of "Nixon/Kennedy" moment with Romney looking cool, confident and "presidential" while the President himself frequently looked detached or irritated. Specifically, critics focused on how much time Obama spent looking down, often leaking facial reactions or nodding his head while Romney was speaking. Now, at one level that kind of criticism can feel palpably unfair. After all, with the critical issues facing the nation, should we really be making a leadership choice based on demeanor and nonverbal style? Naturally, no, as in trial, the best decision is a substantive one, but our attention to substance is still mediated by our perception of strength and confidence. Delivery matters. On that score, the takeaway from both pundits and polls is that Romney had the upper hand. As the iconic Democratic consultant James Carville put it, "It looked like Romney wanted to be there, and Barack Obama didn't want to be there."
Regular readers of this blog know that I like to write about politics, and one of the reasons is that it is a continuous source of accessible lessons for anyone who is seeking to persuade. And the imperative for me is always to look for the practical relevance to the attorney in court. In this case, there is a big takeaway: Look like you're winning. In the days prior to the Denver debate, the polls had been moving clearly in Obama's favor, particularly in the key battleground states like Ohio, Florida, and Virginia. In that context, the first debate was viewed as Romney's opportunity to regain some momentum and turn the tide in those crucial swings, or at least bolster his own faltering troops. While the debates generally don't lead to important changes in opinion, in this case they do lead to an important lesson for persuaders in all contexts, including the advocates at the podium, the witness in the box, or even the party representative sitting at the table. Rather than being just a winning spirit or mindset, confidence - at least as perceived by an audience - is a behavior. This post looks at the key behaviors advocates, parties, and witnesses can use in court to look like they're winning.
The Inevitable Attention to Reactions
One important factor in the way the debates came across on television screens was the use of split screens. Instead of multi-camera operation that might show both candidates, then zoom into the one speaking, then cut to a different angle, debate organizers made the choice to simply split the screen showing a static shot of both candidates at all times while they were speaking. What that does is give as much attention to the reactions and nonverbal tics of the nonspeaking candidate as it does to the speaker. One study (Scheufele, Kim & Brossard, 2007) found that in the 2004 Bush/Kerry debate, this binocular view of the the debate led to more extreme judgments, with the previously supported candidate being viewed even more positively and the opposed candidate moving in an even more negative direction. Viewing the debate with the screen divided to show the candidate speaking on one side and the candidate waiting to speak on the other, there is nothing for the eye to do except drift over and look for reactions from the listener.
In last night's debate, Governor Romney used his "time off" while Obama was speaking to glance down briefly but then give Obama his full attention while maintaining a relatively fixed (but positive and alert) expression that didn't change much even as he was being criticized. President Obama, on the other hand, spent much more time looking down, frequently pursing his lips or giving a tight smile, or even affirmatively nodding as his opponent criticized his performance and policies. The overall impression was that Romney was engaged and bringing the fight, while Obama was on the defensive or even defeated.
Heightened attention to reactions are not unique to the split-screen setting of a presidential debate. Reactions can also dominate in a court room, where you can at times almost feel a breeze created by all the jurors swinging their heads at once to take in the other side's reaction to something that was just said on the witness stand. I've written before on the best practices in "off stage" behavior in court, and the short list includes the following:
- Do maintain an alert eye gaze toward the speaker
- Do keep a relaxed, but still engaged facial expression
- Don't nonverbally react to a particular topic or statement
- Don't signal that you are tired, bored, impatient, or distracted
Beyond just avoiding the poor optics of defensive listening, I think the more specific question is how communicators maintain the impression that they're actually winning. At that level, I think there is an interaction between content and attitude as conveyed through nonverbals.
Make Sure Your Attitude Matches Your Desired Content
Think about President Obama's desired message on the economy: Yes, we are in tough times, but we are slowly making headway, so now is the time to move forward instead of lapsing back to the failed policies of the past. Keeping that theme in mind, the attitude that should accompany it during speaking and listening times should be one of patience and confident optimism. Even - and perhaps especially - when being attacked by an adversary, that patient and confident expression should be unflappable.
The same goes for a witness or an advocate. A theme is not just a sentence in the introduction to the opening statement, it is a frame of mind that should determine how you react to the other side. If your personal injury defense theme is that this was a tragic accident and no one was to blame, then that theme should guide your reaction when the plaintiff attacks. Bristling defensiveness and counterattacks are inconsistent with that theme, while an understanding patience - both in words and in demeanor - is more in line with that message.
And Make Sure Your Content Matches Your Desired Attitude
Attitude doesn't really stand alone, and most trial lawyers would probably agree that the best way to look like you're winning is to actually be winning. Independent of that key bit of advice, though, advocates need to remember that there is an interplay between content and tone.
For example, many analysts this morning are wondering if President Obama could have appeared more powerful and in control if he had been on the attack more often. Indeed, much of the ammunition that the Democratic campaign had been lobbing against the Republicans in recent weeks -- the 47 percent comment, Bain Capital's outsourcing, Romney's tax rate and undisclosed returns -- were entirely absent from the debate. In one of the President's few high points of the debate, he went after Governor Romney's lack of specificity. He noted that Romney promised to make his tax cuts revenue neutral by closing loopholes, but he won't say which ones. He will replace the Dodd-Frank financial sector regulation with something, but he won't say what. He is going to keep the popular provisions of the Affordable Care Act like coverage for preexisting conditions, but he won't say how. "And at some point I think the American people have to ask themselves is the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all these plans to replace secret because they're too good? Is it because that somehow middle class families are going to benefit too much from them?"
The President's supporters ended the night wanting to hear more of that, and wanting to see more of that fighting spirit. If the President or his advisers felt that looking "presidential" meant holding back on the attacks, then they might want to scrutinize that strategy before the next debate. By the same token, if Mitt Romney's message is one of a confident plan to take us forward, then the preliminary verdict is that he conveyed that, at least at the nonverbal level, even if all the details of that plan are not fully fleshed out.
There are two more presidential debates and one vice presidential debates coming up, and I'm hoping that some interesting persuasive lessons can be drawn from each of them. Stay tuned.
The 2012 Presidential Debate Series:
Other Posts on Legal Lessons of Political Speech:
- Take a Lesson from Political Campaigns: Going Negative Works (Partially)
- Embrace Positive Messaging
- Bad Stuff? Get It Out And Get It Over With
Scheufele, D. A., Kim, E., & Brosssard, D. (2007). My Friend's Enemy: How Split-Screen Debate Coverage Influences Evaluation of Presidential Debates. Communication Research 34, 1: 3-24.