Prepping For The Biggest Stage In Politics

An Executive Media Coach on the Clinton v. Trump Presidential Debates

The hype is building and the warm-up act aboard the USS Intrepid previewed the contrasts and the scrutiny that the candidates—and the moderator—will receive. But now it’s show time. If this year’s United States Presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were a Broadway spectacle, it would be hotter than the Broadway darling Hamilton. And anyone with a TV can have a front-row seat.

The first face-off between the candidates on September 26th in Hempstead, NY, is expected to draw the biggest audience in presidential debate history. Obama v. Romney attracted a record 67 million viewers. As many as 80 million Americans are forecast to tune in to watch the first woman nominated by a major political party square off against a real-estate-mogul-cum-reality-TV star.

The bigger the stage, the higher the stakes—and both candidates need a win.

If you believe the polls, and there have been questions about their accuracy, Mrs. Clinton holds such a commanding lead in electoral votes that some have whispered ‘landslide’. But her supporters are not comforted by usually comfortable margins.

She continues to be dogged by historically high unfavorable ratings and questions about her trustworthiness, fanned by her inability to put the email-server investigation to rest and allegations about conflicts of interest between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department under her leadership.

Mr. Trump, meanwhile, finds himself in a deep ditch of his own digging. He has insulted and alienated so many constituencies with his self-admiration, inflammatory rhetoric, lies and ignorance of serious issues that scores of stalwarts in his own party have publicly disavowed his candidacy, some saying they will vote for his opponent instead. In the face of all this, he has doubled down on a strategy of flame-throwing.

So how does each candidate, magnetic and polarizing in their own ways, capitalize on the campaign’s equivalent of Oscar night?

Preparing to Face the Lights: Style and Substance


Like many made-for-TV events, presidential debates are about performance. And a great performance is about substance and style. What you say and how you say it. How well you answer the questions and how well you manage the occasion. How ‘presidential’ you are and how likable you are. Policy chops and personality.

As a television reporter for 25 years, managing these dual demands was part of the job description. The quality of the journalism—the substance—is the bedrock of the work. But the ability to break through the camera and connect with the audience—the style—is also vital to success.

Like many on-air professionals, I found it difficult to watch myself after I had recorded a broadcast.  We’re all hard on ourselves, sure—but the tape doesn’t lie.

That’s one reason that today, as an executive media coach, I am a strong believer in videotaping mock interviews, under the lights, to help clients prepare for the pressures of a big media opportunity. It’s especially important for executives, who are surrounded by people who speak to them carefully, to remove the filters so they can see and hear themselves as others do. This simulation of reality builds not only self-awareness but, with enough practice, self-confidence, too.

Clinton’s Strengths and Weaknesses

Mrs. Clinton’s campaign has set up a dedicated machinery to mock debate practice and she has proven just how powerful exhaustive preparation can be. Anyone who witnessed her stamina and composure over the 11 hours of hostile interrogation during the Benghazi hearings in Congress knows this is a woman who digs in, comes prepared and will not wither under the lights.

The flip side is that voters are frustrated with the lawyerly candidate who seems to wear an armour and parse her words. Those who were drawn to Bill’s easy manner or Bernie’s inspiring visions wonder if they will ever see a relatable, authentic person in Hillary, no matter how many times she tells us being a grandma is her greatest joy.

We can expect Mrs. Clinton to turn in a ‘presidential’ performance—to rate well on substance—but her higher hurdle is style: making herself a more likable, authentic personality we can trust. Her best opportunity to reveal these qualities may be in unscripted moments during the debates, such as how well she deflects verbal broadsides by her opponent, who has never shied from going low.

Pros and Cons for Trump

Donald Trump has no problems being authentic. He is so sure of his own instincts that he chafes at prepared remarks, preferring to shoot from the hip. Not surprising, then, that he’s disparaging of conventional debate practice as a recipe for being “scripted” and “phony.” He will bring a showman’s confidence for how to play a big stage. During the primaries, Mr. Trump was also masterful at undermining his opponents by turning them into caricatures—“Little Marco,” “Low-Energy Jeb.” In a crowded field, with a free-for-all feel, it was a winning strategy.

But his penchant for hyperbole and self-aggrandizement —“I’m going to build a wall and Mexico is going to pay for it” or “I know more about ISIS than the generals”—won’t get the job done in a one-on-one debate with the most experienced person ever to run for high office. When the detailed questions come about how he plans to execute his audacious plans or why Americans should trust he has the temperament and experience to be president in the face of so much evidence to the contrary, ‘trust me’ and ‘believe me’ won’t be enough.

Trump is a master populist who has roused voters with his brash style. But television debates are not stadium rallies. Moderators Lester Holt, Martha Raddatz, Anderson Cooper, Chris Wallace—and Hillary Clinton—can be expected to press him on substance and probe the depths of his understanding about our complex and dangerous world, especially after the criticism Matt Lauer drew for not holding the candidate more accountable.

Creating a Winning Moment

Another thing we know about televised political debates is how determined the media is to declare a winner. The ‘post-game’ analysis begins instantly. It will be all about who scored the most points—on substance and style—and whether either candidate was able to deliver a knockout. Victory often turns on the ability to manufacture a winning moment.

Sometimes that moment arrives as a great line that seems well-planned. When Ronald Reagan debated Jimmy Carter, he famously summed up the stakes this way: “Ask yourself, ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’”

When young Indiana Senator Dan Quayle invoked JFK in his 1988 vice presidential debate with veteran Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen, Bentsen eviscerated him: “I knew Jack Kennedy,” Bentsen said. “Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. You’re no Jack Kennedy.”

More recently, who could forget the gaffe that ended Rick Perry’s presidential ambitions? While vowing to reduce the size of government, he called for the elimination of three government agencies—and then blanked on just what that third agency was.

Anything can happen on live TV. And in the age of social media, the amplification of any memorable moment—positive or negative—will make it virtually universal.

It’s very much the Trump style to coin a phrase and make it a mantra. As the campaigns head into the final stretch, Hillary is sharpening her words, as well.

It should be quite a show.

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