Debate Prep: A Remembrance

On Thursday evening comes CNN’s ballyhooed clown show with two unsympathetic candidates. Neither of them is very good at debating, and one has eschewed all preparation. Many will watch to see who stumbles the most, not who wins.

The attraction of a political debate is more than seeing who scores the most points. It’s to discover whom we finally can identify with. The Kennedy-Nixon televised debates in 1960 set the pattern: JFK was relaxed, prepared, and showed some style. Nixon’s presentation was cold-blooded and his tense body language gave him away. TV made all the difference, this for the first time. Though we know political media is very different now, the visual truth remains, despite AI.

When I was teaching presentation skills, I got a great mashup video cassette of those debates from a friend at American Express, where we were coaching some execs. I wish I still had it. Let’s hope that whoever is coaching Biden shows them that tape.

Biden is a hard man to identify with, while Trump is just a bomb-thrower. And debate prep is more than bringing your client up to speed on the issues and your opponent’s weaknesses. You must enable him to show his character, his realness, that he’s not just the guy you could have a beer with but someone you could warm to and respect. Reagan sets the example here.

I worked with two Rhode Island governors in the 1980s, Ed DiPrete, a Republican who later went to jail, and Bruce Sundlun, a Democrat. They battled each other several times for the governorship, and finally Bruce won in 1990 with a landslide 74% of the vote. I coached him in his presentations (speeches and press conferences, etc.) and prepared him for his first debate in 1986. He was not an easy person to work with.

Besides being irascible and unpredictable, Sundlun had had an incredible career as a WWII bomber pilot flying B-17s over Germany, getting shot down and surviving with the French Resistance, then postwar becoming a very successful businessman, which led him into a life of public service and, finally, politics.

I worked with him on the contentious issues, of course, but the main thrust was to get him to relax and open up about his present life―and his goal to make Rhode Island a destination for tourism and business. It was challenging to convince him to talk openly about himself without being pompous. “Captain Blowhard” the Providence Journal called him. Well, the man had a lot to be pompous about. His wife-to-be Susie was sometimes present in our sessions and she hassled him about that.

There are some techniques to get a client to open up and reveal who he really is. One is getting him to tell stories about growing up and remember being a kid again. Bruce finally got the message to humanize himself, I think, even though he lost that race to DiPrete.

Our sessions were also a real lesson to me about what moves people and how persuasion works on television. You’ll see once again on Thursday whether debate prep matters.

2 Replies to “Debate Prep: A Remembrance”

  1. Loved reading this John. Thanks so much. I am so nervous about this debate. I wish you were consulting for them.
    But no matter how he does, the R’s will find a way to make Biden look terrible. I just learned Friday that they claim he had taken speed to give the State of the Union address back in Feb. Ugh!

  2. Reading this gives me something to think about while I’m watching. I will be in a state of nervous tension with only one eye open, knowing that I am recording and can watch later if I just can’t take it live.

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