With the 2012 presidential debate season now behind us, what have we learned?

Let’s see . . .

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney loves Big Bird, but he’d like to fire him. But he really loves him. In Romney’s management consulting circles, that’s 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 course—let’s not get crazy—but, rather, related to effective communication in adversarial, sometimes uncomfortable situations.

Ceremony and spin aside, what we’re 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

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 wasn’t 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 rallies—where you are reciting a stump speech you’ve given a dozen different times in the past week. You simply cannot turn these skills on and off at a moment’s notice. If Obama sounded like he was in the midst of a policy discussion, it’s likely because that’s what he’d been doing all day. After all, there are good reasons why athletes warm up before a game.

I’ve 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 events—for 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 versed—and less interested, quite frankly—and 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, and—most of all—more prepared.

Make Points Memorable

Consider one of the main takeaways from Monday’s debate: in response to an assertion from 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 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.

Era Of Sound Bites

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 Obama’s 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, you’d 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 than 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.

During a speech to Parliament, he would hold in his hand not notes, but the entire text of what he was going to say—including 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 Obama’s “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.•