Lessons for GCs and CEOs from the Presidential Debates
With the 2012 presidential debate season now behind us, what have we learned?
Lets see . . .
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney loves Big Bird, but hed like to fire him. But he really loves him. In Romneys management consulting circles, thats the classic compliment sandwich. As for President Barack Obama: he ensured he was well rested for the second and third debates . . . by napping through the first.
Sadly, if you followed only the news coverage of the debates, this might be all you know. Yet there are some real lessons that can be drawn from the recent concluded debates. Not regarding substance, of courselets not get crazybut, rather, related to effective communication in adversarial, sometimes uncomfortable situations.
Ceremony and spin aside, what were really watching during presidential debates is two highly educated, substantive executives attempting to communicate in a forum that is, at various times, shallow, contrived, and unfamiliar. And that should ring a bell for many lawyers and corporate executives who often find themselves thrust into similarly challenging communications environments.
Training and Preparation
President Obama has suffered in the polls based on his ineffective performance in the first debate. I, for one, do not believe that he was weary, distracted, or (as was suggested by some commentators) simply tired of being president. Rather, it seems to me he just wasnt ready for the event at hand.
My hunch is that he spent the day not behind closed doors putting the final touches on his opening statement or comebacks, but rather engaged in other, more substantive duties of his office. Admirable, perhaps, but the problem is this: debates have a far different tempo than presidential briefings, policy discussions with your advisors, or even campaign rallieswhere you are reciting a stump speech youve given a dozen different times in the past week. You simply cannot turn these skills on and off at a moments notice. If President Obama sounded like he was in the midst of a policy discussion, its likely because thats what hed been doing all day. After all, there are good reasons why athletes warm up before a game.
Ive seen this time and time again with corporate executives and in-house counsel who are thrust into wildly different communication roles during high-pressure public eventsfor example, media interviews during crisis situations, activist shareholder meetings, or critical testimony before legislators or regulators) GCs, CEOs, senior managers are all wading hip deep, all day, in the complexities of their particular subject area, surrounded by those who are as deeply immersed as they are in the intricacies of a particular issue. They then try to move to a different forum, before an audience less well versedand less interested, quite franklyand they fall flat. They dive deep into substance and nuance. They meander. They complexify. And they wind up saying everything, but communicating little.
The president and his advisors appear to have learned this lesson after the so-called Debacle in Denver. In the second and third debates, Obama was more aggressive, more succinct, andmost of allmore prepared.
Make Your Points, Make Them Memorable
Consider one of the main takeaways from Mondays debate: in response to an assertion from Governor Romney that our Navy now has fewer battleships than in 1916, Obama sharply replied: Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military has changed . . . We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go under water, nuclear submarines.
Yes, it was a quip. A barb. A zinger, even. But you know what? It got the job done.
It worked not just because it was sharp and memorable, but because it made exactly the point President Obama was trying to make. He could have chosen to respond by going in-depth on our current state of naval superiority, the number of vessels we have in various oceans, or the nature of modern warfare (and, no doubt, were this the fist debate, he would have). And we all would have missed the point, yawned, and gone to bed. Instead, a witty comeback not only made the same basic point, but did so in a way that resonated with the listening audience.
Dont Curse the Darkness, Light a Candle
Which brings me to my final point. All of us, particularly lawyers, hate the fact that witty repartee often wins over well-constructed, logical argument. I was particularly intrigued in the aftermath of Obamas first debate performance to hear how much he hates debating (former law professor that he is). It mirrored complaints I often hear about the media, who seem to simply skim the cream off the top of any complex legal or business issue. We often pine for the long-lost days of substantive dialog and debate, and decry those blow-dried types who make it look so easy by stage-managing their communication and relying on gimmickry and spin to get their message across.
Get over it. Yes, we live in a shallow world of sound bites, instant communication, and short attention spans. But I would posit the following: a message not heard is no message at all. And if you want to communicate your message so that it sticks, youd best focus not on how wrong the media environment is, but on how you can succeed in spite of the obstacles of this modern age.
And, yes, it does indeed appear that some of us are better at it that others, But I would argue that this is not by chance. Over the years I have found that those who debate and present well are not necessarily naturals. Rather, they work harder. Consider the example of Winston Churchill, perhaps the finest orator of the last century. Surely, there was no more natural than he? Not exactly. A remarkable fact about Churchill was this: although he often seemed extemporaneous and unrehearsed, that façade was the product of extensive preparation.
In Parliament, Churchill biographer William Manchester has written in his 1988 book The Last Lion, his wit will flash and sting, but members who know him are aware that he has honed these barbs in advance, and only visitors in the Strangers Gallery are under the impression that his great perorations are extemporaneous. On average, for a 40-minute Parliamentary speech, Churchill spent six to eight hours in preparation.
Ironically, Churchill was so interested in giving the impression of spontaneity that he prepared exhaustively for it. During a speech to Parliament, he would hold in his hand not notes, but the entire text of what he was going to sayincluding detailed stage direction (pause; grope for word or stammer; correct self).
Even the public-speaking naturals among us have usually worked hard to get that way. And I suspect that Churchill, shallow spin doctor that he was, would have loved President Obamas bayonet and horses line. Not necessarily because it was witty or even because it was quick, but because the line was well placed in its environment and it worked.
James F. Haggerty, an attorney and communications consultant, is CEO of PRCG/Strategic Communications and the author of In The Court of Public Opinion: Winning Strategies For Litigation Communications (American Bar Association Publishing, 2009).
See also: "Election Season Heats UpIn the Office, Too," CorpCounsel, October 2012.