The Tuesday Night Democratic Debate: Here’s Who Flunked Key Communication Skills
Among those trying to unseat Trump, guess who couldn't answer direction questions? Guess whose eyes shifted repeatedly?
The opening night of round two of the Democratic primary debates likely exceeded the expectations of the CNN viewers who tuned in, given the over-the-top sparring among the candidates on Tuesday night about health care, immigration, gun violence and other issues.
But aside from the obvious battles between moderates and those on the far Left, it’s worth noting which candidates were able communicators — since they only succeed in these venues when they make the shift from politician to presenter and closer.
Candidates need to move voters to action. But when the majority of viewers are watching these debates while texting, tweeting, eating, cleaning, and/or talking to other people, candidates need very special skills to get their points across and motivate audiences.
Which of the Democratic candidates made that shift? Not many.
Professional speakers and successful presenters use the following six skills when they deliver messages to audiences. Here’s how the Democratic candidates on Tuesday night measured up.
1.) Answer the question. Did any of them do this? The point of a debate is for listeners to hear the candidates’ direct answers to determine which individual most shares their sensibilities. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke did answer questions directly and explain those answers. But Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont socialist, did not. Instead, he gave general answers and then jumped quickly to different topics; he also evaded some questions completely and even talked over the moderators when they asked him again. A reluctance or a refusal to answer directly can lead audiences to wonder what the candidates are trying to hide — and whether they’re trustworthy.
2.) Make your point quickly and concisely. The candidates each had one minute or less to respond to direct questions. They knew this rule going in; they should have practiced. It was obvious that former Maryland Rep. John Delaney understood this, as he maximized every second of his time.
He shared concise points and a plan of action. He also respected the time he was given and invested it wisely.
John Delany is the smartest person on that #DemDebate stage by miles and miles. He ran significant businesses—Medicare already doesn’t cover doctors’ costs. Medicare for All tanks entire system.
— Laura Ingraham (@IngrahamAngle) July 31, 2019
The same could not be said of Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Instead of making her point and providing reasoning to support it, she frantically flailed her arms and even yelled about what she was going to do without sharing how she was going to get it done. She repeatedly went over her time allotment and ignored prompting by the moderators.
These attempts to show dominance on the stage failed miserably for her. They were lost opportunities to share points that could have energized supporters.
— The Hill (@thehill) July 31, 2019
Senator Klobuchar’s comment that there is a difference between winning an argument and winning an election may have been the most profound insight of last night’s debate. Warren and Sanders didn’t seem to get it.
— Newt Gingrich (@newtgingrich) July 31, 2019
3.) Maintain eye contact. This skill is tough to master on a debate stage, with cameras, moderators, and audience members all present — not to mention other candidates. Some individuals on stage were so busy looking at each other during the sparring matches that they forgot about the audience members they needed to reach.
Competitors on stage aren’t the target audience (they’ll only be voting for themselves, after all) — so there’s no point in looking left and right on such a crowded floor.
Sanders stuck to the same talking points as in the first debate — and attacked other candidates. I’m betting he didn’t advance his campaign on Tuesday night.
Some candidates were better at maintaining eye contact than others. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota repeatedly shifted her gaze from the moderators to the audience and then to the viewers at home; she lacked focus and seemed confused about her target audience. Instead of looking around, she should have taken short micro-pauses to make a true connection.
Author Marianne Williamson — who charged that a “dark psychic force” is creating a racial divide in this country — and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock took this exact approach. They each seemed to speak to everyone in the room and beyond.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, stared at the moderators most of the time — while former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper repeatedly looked down or off to the side.
4.) Provide a succinct recap. Every successful speaker knows how to smartly summarize key points. This leaves a memorable impression in people’s minds — and gives them something powerful to think about after the debate. When Delaney entered the debate arena on Tuesday, he had a mission to make America pay attention. He did so, in my view, by laying out his plan objectives — as well as the benefits to the American people. He spoke with confidence and wasn’t afraid to face off with other candidates. Delaney wrapped up each talking point with a big red bow.
Warren says she'll be able to pay for Universal Healthcare, Student Loan Forgiveness and public education by implementing a "wealth tax." pic.twitter.com/HLMoaPpym6
— Washington Examiner (@dcexaminer) July 31, 2019
Sanders did not. He stuck to virtually the same talking points as in the first debate — and attacked other candidates. I’m betting he didn’t advance his campaign on Tuesday night, despite his notable comment, “I wrote the damn bill!” in regard to his Medicare for All plan.
5.) Believe in your message. Top speakers have the ability to confront obstacles — and to make audiences believe they’ll win no matter the enemy or challenge. This skill was (and is) especially important for candidates bold enough to declare that they can and will defeat President Donald Trump. Yet none of the candidates on stage on Tuesday night, in my estimation, proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they can defeat Trump in November 2020.
It’s going to take a whole lot more than just verbal attacks to beat Trump — but that was about all these candidates could muster.
Democrats spent hours at the #DemDebate last night arguing which radical, big government proposal was best.
— Richard Walters (@rww_gop) July 31, 2019
ICYMI: Last night, Elizabeth Warren continued to move further to the left—this time doubling down on decriminalizing border crossings.pic.twitter.com/ETiVkYwXeE
— GOP (@GOP) July 31, 2019
6.) Be aware of every detail. The candidates’ first opportunity to demonstrate their patriotism was during the singing of the national anthem — when all of them, except for one, placed a hand over their heart. Williamson was a little late to do so, but Ryan did not honor this long-standing tradition in America. Was it an honest mistake on his part, or was he making a statement?
Only he knows for sure — but everyone saw it. Actions often speak louder than words.
For any presidential candidate, success in presenting and closing means connecting to hearts and minds — and building and sustaining trust.
Stay tuned for Wednesday night’s debates and results.
John Di Lemme is president and CEO of DDG, Inc. (www.GiantGoals.com), a strategic business consulting firm based in West Palm Beach, Florida. As a global turnaround specialist, he has generated over $100 million for his corporate and entrepreneurial clients.