Whatever else you thought about the performances turned in by President Obama and Governor Romney’s during Wednesday night’s presidential debate (as well as that of Jim Lehrer, who had the nerve to keep interrupting them with questions!), the occasion was generally a study in good public speaking tactics. Though President Obama and Governor Romney shared a number of similar presentational techniques, the two did take some divergent approaches. Here’s a quick review of things they did right and not-so-right, as well as a few key takeaways that can help make you a better public speaker.
The candidates were allowed to give prepared opening remarks, and those remarks served them well. I advise my students to memorize the first 20 seconds of their presentations for the same reason. Nail the opening, and you’re telling your audience you’re serious about delivering a strong point.
Though many say Obama made a mistake by not looking at Romney directly, he made this move purposely as part of an obvious overall strategy to avoid coming off as an attacker. In retrospect, this was probably not a wise choice. This allowed Romney to be aggressive and more actively control the debate. But one thing President Obama did that I found very effective — and more useful as a lesson — was looking straight into the camera when he was “talking to America”. I found it very engaging, and drove home the point that making direct eye contact is a valuable public speaking strategy. You always want to create a human connection with your audience.
Power in Periods
One thing both Obama and Romney did well was to end sentences in periods instead of question marks. Ending statements in question marks – as we commonly do when speaking casually – subliminally suggests you don’t know the answer. On the other hand, ending in periods conveys confidence. Keep watching and see for yourself. Key points should always end with a firm period, as if you’re saying, “This I believe.”
Saturday Night Live loves to poke fun at the President’s biggest public speaking flaw: his tendency to fill spaces with a guttural “uhhhhhhhh” that sounds like a creaky door. He tried to contain it during the debate, but it came out intermittently. I don’t think it hurts his impression all that much, but it’s always better to fill that space with silence instead of nonsense words. That said, both candidates admirably avoided “ummmm”s and “ahhhh”s very well.
Body in Motion
A minor mistake on his part, Governor Romney moved his body a lot while talking — turning, twisting, hunching, and shifting — whereas the President kept his body fairly still and mostly moved his head. In general, you want to keep your body as still as possible. Shifting around conveys discomfort and unease. Both used gestures well, by the way: not too often, and effectively to emphasize points. The President’s did seem a little more under control at times.
For a more in-depth (and much more fun) look at Obama and Romney’s favorite gestures and what they mean, check out this awesome New York Times info-graphic.
The candidates had strict time limitations, but bought themselves more time by using clever rhetorical tricks, like counting off their ideas. After all, who wants to interrupt someone between his second and third idea? The President also began some phrases with “Let me just say…” while Romney prefaced his points with “One last point I want to make”. Either way, it’s basically a way of giving yourself permission to continue – a good tactic to borrow if you find yourself on a conference panel.
Joel Schwartzberg is our resident expert on presentations and public speaking. Visit The Hired Guns Academy to take his class or book him as a private coach.