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Don't be the Donald - it doesn't work at work.

Five lessons for speaks from GOP debates

So we have had a number of lengthy GOP debates on our television recently. Who do you think did well? Wonder why The Donald is being so effective?

Let us put aside for the moment whether we are left or right of center politically. Ignore that we might want one of these people to be President and let’s see what we can learn from these events. What have we seen on TV that we could use to make ourselves better speakers? Here are five lessons from the early debates.


1.     How you look matters 

Ever wonder why politicians on stage dress similarly or why Donald’s hair is such a feature of discussion?

One of the realities of debate is that 70% of the effectiveness of any speaker is what they look like. About 20% is how they sound and just under 10% is what they say. If you want people to focus on your content, then you can’t have them distracted by your appearance or how you sound. When Trump focused on Jeb Bush’s “low energy”, he was implying that people would not be able to see past how he looked and sounded to listen to his message.

At work we need to think about how we look and sound when we present. Do you want to come off as professional and organized or risk coming off too casual and unprepared? When I present, I make sure to have practiced my first few sentences – not to make sure the content is perfect, but to make sure I am not distracting people from my message.

2.     But you still need to have content

If you are not distracting by look or sound, your audience can then be impacted by your message.

After the second debate, Jeremy Diamond from CNN declared his winners and losers. Marco Rubio was one of his ‘winners’ and about Rubio he said “…he can weave his strong handle of policy with a compelling personal narrative.” In other words, when he needs to show he knows something, he takes an area where he is strong (say an area of policy) and connects to the audience by connecting it to his own story. Contrast that approach with others who talk about themselves without connecting to the content of a policy. It can make them sound like a ‘wind-bag.’

When we present, we are often more focused on the 10% content than the other 90% of the effectiveness. This is important in a work environment because most of your audience probably already knows and has opinions about you. That means they are ready to focus on the content of what you say. If you want that content to be the most effective, make sure you talk about things you know and can relate to.

3.     Beware of humor 

Rule number one of speaking: if you are not funny, don’t tell jokes.

Shoot anyone who tells you that you ‘should always open with a joke.’ Do you remember how much trouble Mitt Romney got into when he tried to tell a "humorous" story about his dad shutting down a factory. Even though he tried this on The Tonight Show, it backfired. Trust me, if you are not funny, don’t tell jokes. Even worse, don’t tell someone else’s story that’s old and often repeated. If you are not sure, ask someone quietly before if they’ve heard “this one before.” If they say yes. Don’t use it.

A good presentation is made better with humor but only when the humor is natural and fits in. It works well as a quick aside and not as a ‘that reminds me of a story.’ Better your presentation be clear and concise. Outside a comedy club, audiences tend to reward brevity over humor.

4.     Insults are cheap 

Insults are the ‘empty calories’ of debate – they give you a boost for a few seconds and then quickly leave you empty.

Think about how Donald Trump led the debate. Pointing at Rand Paul he wondered why he was even there because “he’s number 11.” It was not funny or that clever. It looked like a cheap shot that to many would have made Trump look mean not clever. Trump may get away with it in GOP-debate world but in the real world, insults tend to look mean and you look small for using them.

The better approach is to bide your time and respond with something clever that’s not rude. Something that raises yourself rather than lowers someone else. Think about how Carly Fiorina responded to Trump’s insult about her face and whether it was about her looks or her politics. “I think woman all over this country,” she said, “heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.”

5.     Talk to the audience not yourself 

The best presenters talk about what the audience wants to hear, not what the presenter wants to talk about.

One great moment of the second debate happened when there was a back and forth between Trump and Fiorina. At one point Chris Christie jumps in and refocused the debate on the audience. He chides them both with “…you're both successful people, congratulations.” Then he refocused the debate. “You know who's not successful?” he asked. “The middle class in this country who's getting plowed over by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.” Ignoring whether you agree with him politically, my guess is that people who wanted to hear content probably cheered for Christie.

At work we could sometimes use a Chris Christie type to help us. We can be so eager to show how much we have learned and so excited by what we know, that we forget to think about what the audience needs to hear. Ask yourself, if I was in this audience what would I want to learn from this presentation? Make sure you are delivering that as your primary objective. 

Bottom Line

The truth is that political debates are as much about theatre as they are about anything else. That is probably not true at work. What is more, our political leaders are doing a dozen or more debates between now and the election. Lots of time for learning and fine tuning.

At work, you may not get a dozen times to get your message across. You might only get one chance to impact or change a strategy. Watching these debates can help us learn both good and bad behavior. We can each take that learning to our next presentation to make us more effective communicators.



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