The presidential election is all over except for the actual voting. No more polls, Super PAC ads, oversized postcards delivered to your mailboxes and automated robocalls filling up your answering machines. I’m sure you, like me, are ready for the barrage of electioneering to end.
Despite our collective frustration with what seems to be the never-ending election season, as lawyers and communications professionals we have a lot to learn from the presidential campaigns. Perhaps most importantly, there are a number of lessons we can learn from the recent presidential debates and the single vice presidential debate.
These lessons, for example, can help you in the courtroom delivering opening or closing arguments, or cross-examining witnesses. And make no mistake — the debates mattered this year, especially the first one.
After the first debate, Mitt Romney’s poll numbers moved up, and the race is looking like a deadlock as we head down the home stretch. So let’s review some important lessons that President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Romney and running mate Paul Ryan displayed this election season.
First, paraphrasing what Marshall McLuhan penned five decades ago, “the medium can be the message.”
The debate environment mattered. While McLuhan was referring to (among other platforms) the medium of television, what I’m referring to here is the debate format. For example, standing at a lectern answering questions from a moderator versus standing up from a stool and walking around to address questions from a studio audience gave each candidate either an advantage or disadvantage that had nothing to do with their answers.
Behind a lectern, both candidates appeared to be the same size and neither physically demonstrated a dominant presence. While Romney clearly showed better control of the debate, better eye contact and delivery of key messages, Obama’s height advantage and stronger body language while walking around helped him rebound in the second debate.
For attorneys, you must also consider the venue you’re speaking at or arguing in while preparing your communications. Preparing for being seated at a long table across from the arbitrator should be different than preparing to address a judge or jury while walking around the courtroom. The medium matters.
Second, everything speaks. More than the words and policy pronouncements that come out of adversaries’ mouths, their body language spoke volumes — just as yours does when making arguments in a trial or in many other professional settings.
Biden’s wide grin shown on a split TV screen expressing a strong sense of outrage at Ryan’s answers; Romney’s ability to clearly enumerate with his fingers his five-point plan to restore the U.S. economy; and Obama’s cadence in the second debate (and when he looked down at the lectern to his notes rather than up at the moderator in the first debate) represent three examples of nonverbal communication that delivered their own messages in and of themselves.
Other important communication tools include eye contact (e.g., looking at your opponent when addressing him says “I’m confident”) and voice intonation (e.g., raising your voice is advised for the points you’re most passionate about and lowering your voice is advisable when addressing somber topics such as war casualties).
Third, the message matters, but it’s how you deliver it that really counts. The debates showed the importance of speaking in sharp, concise soundbites. No one remembers long-winded answers; they recall short, sometimes witty answers. In the first debate, Romney’s answers (unlike Obama’s) were concise, repeated often so that they were memorable and humanized with personal anecdotes from the campaign trail.
However, in the town hall format, Obama bounced back by effectively bridging to his key messages and prioritizing his responses to the audience watching at home, regardless of the questions being asked. He outlined his economic agenda and attacked Romney on topics his campaign feels are important to electoral victory (e.g., women’s issues).
Obama was also aided post-debate by one of Romney’s answers that included the phrase “binder full of women.” His campaign has been able to leverage that phrase to deliver the message that Romney is wrong on issues surrounding workplace equality.
That leads to the fourth lesson: Feedback is instant and amplified by surrogates. In other words, everything you say (borrowing from Miranda) “can and will be used against (or for) you in a court of law.”
“Binders full of women” and “we also have fewer horses and bayonets” are two phrases whose shelf-life has lived beyond their respective debate evenings and have been employed relentlessly by Obama supporters on social media. In your everyday professional lives, it’s important to understand that what you say in a public forum (e.g., the courtroom or during a press conference) can be picked up by those with their own agendas and turned against you and your client on Twitter, the blogosphere and other rapidly growing virtual platforms.
Finally, there were several lessons from the debates right out of the media training playbook that you can recognize and prepare for in your own communications.
Biden interrupted Ryan often during the first part of their debate, which was criticized by many (although beloved by partisan Democrats). Ryan did a good job not going tit-for-tat and responding with a sharp retort when he told Biden to stop interrupting him — “Mr. Vice President, I know you’re under duress to make up a lost round.”
Ryan showed control, a lesson for any trial attorney or communicator in an adversarial circumstance. Also, none of the candidates appeared to fall for the absent party trap or hypothetical. That’s when you’re asked to comment on what someone else said when you weren’t present and answer something that hasn’t yet happened. Answering these types of questions can come back to burn you.
Despite your political affiliation or candidate preference, all of us can agree in a bipartisan manner that the four debates offered plenty of lessons for attorneys and anyone else tasked with communications for their organizations. There’s simply no margin for error in that declaration. •
Jeff Jubelirer is the principal of Jubelirer Strategies. He leads the development and execution of all aspects of its clients’ strategic communications programs, including media relations, issue and crisis management, and community relations. He also is an adjunct professor in crisis communication at Temple University.