This blog post first appeared on Forbes.com
You might think that political candidates don’t have a lot to teach you about communicating with your employees or shareholders. Actually they do.
When you give a speech, you have a captive audience – “political prisoners,” if you will. The meetings are mandatory, and they have to listen to you. I find it amusing how audiences of employees laugh with more gusto at executive jokes that would barely register if told by another employee of lower rank. After a presentation, an executive’s lieutenants tell him what a great job he did, regardless of the performance.
Conversely, every time candidates for elective office open their mouths they are trying to persuade someone. They are constantly influencing “up” the food chain, because the voters are the boss. So, taking the partisan politics out of it, let’s review what communications and persuasion pointers you can take from the Presidential and Vice Presidential debates.
First, what is it exactly that defines that “gut reaction,” that “first impression?” Tone of voice? Eye contact? Hair or clothing style? No, it’s more nuanced than that.
1. Warm Up and Show You Know – Digging deeper into the nuances of first impressions, (which we know are actually final impressions) Amy Cuddy of Harvard Business School, Susan Fiske of Princeton, and Peter Glick of Lawrence University have developed a new model to further delineate how we quickly judge others. All over the world, it turns out, people judge others on two main qualities: warmth and competence. Before you cue up the unicorns and rainbows, read on.
Are they friendly with good intentions? Do they have the ability to deliver on those intentions?
As human beings, it makes sense that we would abhor cold, incompetent folks. But Cuddy and her colleagues found that we respond with ambivalence to other personality blends, too. For example, warm and incompetent people elicit pity and benign neglect; competent but cold personality types foster envy and a desire to harm. Thus, warmth and competence becomes the winning combination.
During the debates, we see competence largely through our personal bias, so I’m not going to debate the competency of any of the candidates. But relative to warmth, how did Joe Biden rate? Is Romney being specific enough on his proposals? What about President Obama?
We like to think that we process the data, but according to communications researchers, we all judge books by their cover. And those judgments can be amazingly accurate.
“I couldn’t care less what people say about how they judge others,” said Dr. Frank Bernieri, an Oregon State University professor who conducts experiments in nonverbal communications.
“I’m interested in what takes place instantaneously, reflexively, subconsciously and immediately.”
According to Dr. Bernieri, impression making is all over in the first 30 seconds.
In one of his experiments, untrained subjects were shown 30-second video segments of job applicants greeting interviewers. The subjects rated the applicants on qualities such as self-assurance, competence, and likeability. Then trained interviewers conducted 20-minute interviews with the same job applicants and were asked to complete a four-page evaluation of each applicant. The evaluations of the trained interviewers who spent 20 minutes interviewing the applicants did not differ from those of the untrained observers who watched 30 seconds of videotape!
The Bottom Line: Do you put forward specific plans and ideas? Do you “show you know?” Are you a warm person? Can you spontaneously communicate well with people you don’t know well, or just those in your inner circle? If not, it’s time to ride the elevators for some spontaneous conversation practice.
2. Not All Eye Contact is Equal – You’ve heard the constant refrain that you must have eye contact with your audience, whether a large group or individual. That’s true, but not all eye contact sends good vibrations.
I noticed in the first Romney/Obama debate that Obama’s eye contact when listening to Romney tended to be rather piercing at times, certainly not what we call “soft” eye contact in the speaking business. At other times his head was down, writing notes, which is totally necessary, but that behavior was universally panned because he appeared disengaged, or worse, like he was running with the glaciers. According to the experts, he was likely using mental energy to process his thoughts and would be distracted by looking at Romney.
A study by Phelps, Doherty-Sneddon, and Warnock published in the British Journal of Psychology examined eye contact among children which has ramifications for us adults.
According to Doherty-Sneddon: Looking at faces is quite mentally demanding. We get useful information from the face when listening to someone, but human faces are very stimulating and all this takes processing. So when we are trying to concentrate and process something else that’s mentally demanding, it’s unhelpful to look at faces.”
In the second debate, Obama made an effort to look at Romney much more often when Romney was speaking.
While Obama was talking, Romney more frequently had an openness in his visage, often with a slight smile on his face and very soft eye contact. (Some may view the smile as a smirk, but that is the confirmation bias at play.) I noticed this frequently in the Republican presidential debates. Romney slightly pivots towards the person who is talking, has a slight smile and generally soft eye contact with that individual. He’s not agreeing or disagreeing with them. He’s taking it in, and he’s not giving away what he’s thinking. He certainly doesn’t look mean, bored, or incredulous at what the other person is saying.
The Bottom Line: You may have plenty of eye contact with your audience, but what kind of eye contact is it? Searing? Soft? Empathetic? Stern? Video tape your next speech, turn down the volume when playing it back, and judge for yourself.
3. It’s About Them, Not You – Since debates are ostensibly conducted to educate and persuade voters, it would seem that the candidates would put more effort into reaching their “persuadable” audience and less about reaching the true believers.
People view Vice President Joe Biden’s strength as being “a regular guy,” “one of us,” and a “plain talker.” However, there’s a dark side to that when you don’t turn on your behavioral filters. As good as it feels, it’s not wise to employ the “If it feels good, do it” mantra whenever the mood strikes us. Observers on both sides of the political aisle felt that his folksiness got a bit out of control with his frequent laughter and interruptions, and some confused it with aggression.
Emerson’s essay “Compensation” reminded me of what we saw with Vice President Joe Biden last week. In part Emerson wrote: “For every strength, there is a consequent weakness. Every excess causes a defect; every defect an excess. . . . ”
His strength of being a “plain talker” brought forth a weakness in self-control. His behavior made me wonder who he was trying to persuade. The post-debate focus groups showed that his style really fired up his base, but is that necessary at this point? Is his base going to bolt to Romney because Biden isn’t showing enough passion?
One reason that people view that kind of behavior unsettling is because we view the highly charged person as unpredictable, especially if we do not know the individual well, disagree with them, or view them with ambiguity. We just don’t know what they are going to do next. As I wrote in Underdog Edge, we know that when influencing up (and all of these candidates are influencing up, because they’re influencing voters and voters are the boss) that too much passion can backfire unless you make your listener believe he or she will be a hero for agreeing with you. It creates a sense of unpredictability, and we hate that because it makes us have to think about what you are going to do or say next, and we get uncomfortable.
Don’t believe me? Think back to your last encounter with a highly charged coworker or subordinate. How did their “passion” for their opposing view make you feel? Did they convince you to agree with them, or did you just want the encounter to be over?
I read that he interrupted either the moderator or Congressman Ryan over 80 times. I watched the debate and knew he interrupted a lot, but when you calculate that into a 90-minute debate, he was the human version of a 50-car pileup of indignation. And that doesn’t create a positive “gut reaction”.
Contrast that “passion” with Obama’s version in 2008. In 2008 he made his audiences feel like a hero. “We are the ones we have waited for” was a memorable line from his election night speech. And of course, “Yes we can!” was another chant that made the audience feel like they were on a positive journey.
The Bottom Line: Are you communicating in a way to reach your priority audience, or to make yourself feel better, to “let your freak flag fly”?
4. Count the Ways – People like to follow numbers. One of my mentors told me that if you always give people three reasons for something, they’ll listen up. Great speeches often incorporate the tricolon of three parallel words, phrases, or clauses. Romney naturally answers questions this way, and while Obama does it often in speeches, he is less apt to answer questions this way, using a more professorial tone.
As H.L. Mencken said, “For every complex problem there is a simple solution, and it’s always wrong.” I agree with Obama’s approach – I don’t think the answers to major public policy questions are best explained in sound bites. However, we are frugal thinkers, and when you cite the numbers, you make it easy for the mind to tune in.
The Bottom Line: What are your “three reasons” for your view, idea or proposal?