Presidential Debate Advice for Mitt Romney
The following debate suggestions for Gov. Romney may be worth what his advisers are paying for them -- nothing. But here goes anyway.
TO: Governor Romney's Presidential Debate Preparation Team
Since the first presidential debate is only a month away, here are some unsolicited suggestions, pertaining to a few elements of Delivery and Content, you may wish to consider as you help prep the governor to debate President Barack Obama.
Slow down Mitt's eye movement. When Mitt speaks, his eyes tend to quickly sweep across the audience. He scans. It's common behavior signaling a speaker's natural nervousness. But there's a more effective level of eye contact that helps build an audience's confidence in a speaker, whatever the setting.
An audience has a more positive impression of a speaker's credibility and sincerity when the speaker maintains focused eye contact while he says a complete sentence; then moves to another focus point in a brief pause; and, once re-focused, begins and ends another sentence without shifting eye contact from that point. The process is then repeated, over and over again.
(You ask, "But shouldn't he talk to the camera?" The answer is -- yes, occasionally. But when the debaters are given that last chance to sell themselves, you've seen how artificial it looks when they focus in on the lens and assume a commercial demeanor.)
The type of eye contact described above not only personalizes the communication between speaker and audience; it also slows down the speaker's rate of speech. And sometimes Mitt talks too fast.
Suggest that Mitt grin less. Mitt often has a slight grin when speaking, even when he's not happy. The underlying motive for that behavior is irrelevant -- whether it's an effort to project a cordial demeanor despite internal aggravation, or as some will invariably interpret, it represents a mild smugness. It doesn't matter. The audience perception is what matters. So grin with care.
The face should match the words. When the governor is critical of the president, he shouldn't grin. We conservatives laugh at Joe Biden now and then, but we find little to nothing about this president to make us laugh, or even grin. And when we do laugh, it is a derisive laughter.
Suggest that Mitt use wide, smooth gestures for emphasis. For some reason -- perhaps it goes back to JFK's patented use of the gesture -- politicians favor the pumping-coffee-mug gesture. Grab a mug of coffee; put the thumb atop the handle. Now pump your arm up and down from the elbow. After you clean up the mess, try it without the mug, but with the fingers in the same position. It's repetitive. And the gesture is neither (very) emphatic nor (at all) descriptive. But politicians seem to love using it. Obama uses it, perhaps to look "presidential."
Don't let Mitt accept the premise of the moderator's questions. None of the moderators is likely to vote for your client. They're all liberals. (We conservatives continue to wonder why the GOP lets this happen, election after election, but never mind that.)
Before Mitt answers a hostile question, suggest he consider two possible transitions into his answer:
(1) Push back against the question the way General Tommy Franks did when he was being interviewed by the late Peter Jennings during the second Iraq War. Franks began his answer saying, "Peter, I don't accept the premise of your question." Jennings leaned back as though he'd taken a hit. He had. Franks then took control of the question and turned it to his, not Jennings', agenda.
Or, as another option, (2) suggest that Mitt briefly rephrase the negative question to get it as close to neutral as the governor cares to go. Suppose he's asked: "Governor Romney, how can you support RomneyCare and not ObamaCare?" One rephrase option might be: "So Jim, you're wondering if there are any differences between the health care system the people of Massachusetts wanted and got, and what the American people didn't want and got shoved down their throats in ObamaCare? Well, briefly, the major differences are..." Lehrer may not like that approach, but so what?
The good thing about negative questions is that they can be wonderful set-ups for delivering compelling responses. "Jim, I supported the Massachusetts plan because it was what the majority of the citizens of the State of Massachusetts wanted. Today they're free to change it whenever they want. But most Americans did not want ObamaCare, and they still don't. It was crammed down their throats by Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and [turning to Obama] you, Mister President." (No grinning here.)
Obama does not like direct confrontation. It throws him off-balance. Review the videos of the Obama-Hillary debates for confirmation of that observation.
Although a moderator's question -- like the hypothetical one above -- might seem to invite a wonkish answer detailing the difference between two health care plans, a detailed answer will drive the audience into a mental blizzard. Don't let your client go wonkish, even though he's considerably more facile with facts than is the president.
Suggest that Mitt watch for counterpunch opportunities in response to hostile questions in order to stay on the offensive.
Mitt will be ambushed, perhaps with a question on, say, abortion, like "Governor, isn't it true that your position on abortion has shifted from...?" Briefly say why that's not true, or how it is and why, then add, "but I have never once supported infanticide as [turning toward Obama] you did, Mr. President, when you were a state senator back in Illinois." (Any boos from the audience will be from Obama supporters. If they boo, it's not a bad thing, because you can't legitimately boo a fact.)
Lastly, be alert to the Paula Zahn-patented "Don't you think that...?" lead-in to a question. The former news anchor at ABC, who has since moved on through several other networks, often began her interview questions with "Don't you think that...?" It's the catapult for the classic leading question.
Remember the response Newt Gingrich got when he pushed back against Juan Williams' question about race in one of the primary debates? Many of us will be looking for the governor to stand up respectfully against the president, and also stand up, not as respectfully, against the biased moderators from the old legacy media.
If the governor holds his ground with force and clarity, it will advance his election chances.
When there's an opening for a punch, Mitt should throw it. For example:
"Mr. President, your increase of the federal debt [that makes it Obama's increase] by six trillion dollars has sent many chills down spines in America, but not a single thrill up a leg."
"Sir, your frequent use of 'unsustainable' -- as in unsustainable budget deficits -- is itself unsustainable. The only way to stop compulsive behavior is to stop it, and not just say it needs stopping."
"President Obama, your pleas for civility in political speech have been matched by steady increases in the harsh partisan rhetoric coming from those who represent the party you lead."
"When you say that 'all economists agree' on something -- what you mean, sir, is that all the economists you chose to consult agree with your opinions."
"Mr. President, yes, it's true you've set some records: The record for the most presidential golf outings, the record for the most lavish White House parties, the record for the highest travel expenses, and the record for the greatest increases in the federal debt in all of American history. All these records come at the expence of the American taxpayers, sir."
If Obama should try to compare his achievements to Ronald Reagan's: "Mr. President, I never knew Ronald Reagan, but my now-deceased father, former Michigan Governor George Romney, did know him. And you, sir, are no Ronald Reagan."
And lastly, if Obama baits your client by saying, "Governor, you want to bet ten thousand dollars that that's not true?," suggest that Mitt respond with, "Mr. President, the American people have already bet six trillion dollars on you, sir, and they've little to show for it." (No grinning here, either.)
Before retirement, the writer taught presentation skills for 23 years to thousands of business executives, from hundreds of companies, throughout the U.S. and in twelve other countries. He coached businessmen and women to stand up before big and small groups and speak under a wide variety of circumstances -- when the stakes ranged from internal morale to making an outside sale worth billions of dollars. It's from that non-political business perspective that these suggestions are offered to Governor Romney's debate preparation team as they await the first presidential debate on October 3, in Denver, Colorado, moderated by PBS's Jim Lehrer.