Regardless of political affiliation or which presidential candidate you support, Thursday’s Democratic Debate was a case study in stage presence. There are many do’s and don’ts for giving a great on-camera interview, some of which we saw in the debate. A candidate could have the best platform to their voters and still lose a debate—and an election—if they’re not careful about the way they present.
Winning a debate—or giving a great interview—requires more than answering questions and responding to criticism. Great poise, charisma, facial expressions and the proper use of gestures can make or break an on-camera appearance. The candidates were all well prepared with viewpoints on the main topics of the evening, including gun control, immigration, national security, trade policy and education—but not all nailed it from a presentation perspective.
Any company executive or spokesperson preparing for a broadcast interview can apply key learnings from the debate to improve their presence. Below are 5 lessons based on the debate:
1. Bridge to key messages
Answer the questions being asked, but don’t feel confined to them—bridge to your key messages. Senator Warren did a good job of bridging all evening. When asked about her position on gun control, she pivoted to focus on corruption in Congress and the need to end the filibuster in order to enable real progress and reform, which is one of her key opinions. By effectively bridging to key messages, she was able to get across important points she wanted to make and position herself as an articulate leader.
2. Pay attention to your gestures and facial expressions
This is especially important when you’re on camera. The use of gesturing can be effective when it’s done properly: hands should be kept at waist or chest level, and gestures should be kept to a minimum or you risk distracting the audience. Both Senator Kamala Harris and Senator Warren gestured well, typically using them only to emphasize key points. Bernie Sanders took an opposite approach, using wide arms up around his face and gesturing throughout every response. This is what he is known for, but for the typical presenter, such an approach would not be received well.
Facial expressions are also extremely important to engaging the audience. Whereas Senator Booker used excited and enthusiastic expressions throughout the evening, Mayor Pete Buttigieg came across as deadpan. Although Buttigieg made good points and shared some great anecdotes, his facial expressions were vacant, making it difficult to connect with him. It’s important to use facial expressions to make yourself approachable and memorable.
3. Be cautious when using a sense of humor
Humor can be a great tool for appearing charismatic and encouraging engagement with the audience—however, it can be risky, so it’s important to use it wisely. For example, Senator Booker used some lighthearted sarcasm in a very natural way that went over well with both the moderators and the audience. Senator Harris, on the other hand, inserted a joke at the end of an otherwise very well-done response—calling President Trump “the little man behind the curtain”—which felt forced and awkward.
4. Use data
Overarching narratives and personal stories are critical for connecting with the audience and seeming personable, but it’s also important to have a few data points to back up key messages. Most of the candidates had some stats in their back pockets, but Senator Amy Klobuchar used data in a poignant way where people would remember it—mentioning tariffs on $300 billion in goods, the trade war costing 300,000 jobs, and other areas that were important to the general viewer.
5. Make a statement
When asked a tough question, it can be tempting to stay on middle ground so you don’t alienate anyone. Doing so, however, can make you appear as though you don’t stand for anything. For example, Vice President Biden answered a few questions about his policies around gun control and trade with vague, non-committal responses, which made it appear like he was trying to avoid the questions, and in some cases made him look defensive and angry. We’ve seen some large companies take this same approach in the news recently when responding to crises or answering questions about their policies—and unfortunately their customers ultimately felt less engaged with them as a result.
Other candidates, conversely, gave very direct answers, choosing to make a strong statement even on somewhat contradictory topics like education, the political conflict in Venezuela, and gun violence. Beto O’Rourke took a firm stance on gun control, laid out his plan and didn’t waffle on it when asked if he thought it went too far. He shared a very emotional story to back up his reasoning, and it earned him a huge round of applause. There may be times during an interview when you need to take a more middle ground approach versus making a direct statement, but in those cases, it’s best to bridge to a key message rather than give a non-answer.