We have now officially entered silly season - the final weeks of the 2010 election season, and that means….debates, and lots of them! Campaigns spend an inordinate amount of time raising money to do one thing – deliver their message to voters, most often through paid media. Precious positive ”earned” media opportunities - stories involving a candidate in a positive light, in print or on television - become like rainbows without rain – very rare.
Debates are a very rare opportunity for candidates to get over an hour of free – FREE – exposure before the electorate. Almost all races (State Senate, Congress) have locally televised debates, and bigger races get the opportunity to debate on much bigger stages – venues such as Meet the Press. These opportunities can make an underfunded candidate, as an all-star performance usually leads to multiple days, or even weeks, of positive “earned” media exposure to follow. Yet, too many candidates spend more time preparing breakfast than preparing for a debate, and it shows.
Which brings us to Debate Prep 101, Rule #1 – If you don’t prepare, you know how you will fare! (Hint – not well!)
Six more hard and fast rules every candidate needs to remember before a debate:
2. Too Long is Wrong – The moment is finally here…the moderator has offered up a softball. “Candidate xyz, how do you feel about ____?” The ultimate opportunity to really deliver a crisp, focused, moving message. The candidate answers and hits a home run, and then….keeps going, and going, and going, until finally the moderator puts a painful end to it. Too long is wrong.
3. Memorize is, umm…….fraught with peril- Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona is the latest victim of trying to memorize an opening statement, and….blanking. It happens to everyone, but very rarely on such a national stage. Audiences will forgive a lot, but an audience will not forgive blanking on an opening statement when you must articulate why you are running for office. More on Governor Brewer’s tough week to follow…
4. Bills Don’t Pay - I have trained dozens of incumbents, and most share one trait when it comes to answering a debate question. “My bill on….”; “Senate Bill 1234, which I co-sponsored…”; House Resolution 123, which I voted against…” Other than very contentious, very public pieces of legislation, the public rarely remembers a bill number. Even in that rare circumstance when the public does remember the bill by number, talk about the issue behind the bill, not the bill itself. Hint: When unemployment and taxes are through the roof, not too many people will believe that your bill, regardless of party affiliation, will, or did, change everything instantly.
5. Smile! You’re on Candid Camera! - Today, if you are running for dog catcher and are debating, someone will be recording it. If you err, say something questionable or gaffe, it will be on Youtube. Approach your opponent before the debate begins, smile, shake hands, and act like an adult for the next hour. Even if the debate isn’t televised, if you mess up, it will be.
6. Be a composer… - Your delivery is as important as your content. Allow your cadence to guide the listener. Allow your tone to serve as a verbal highlighter when you are making a point, changing course, or framing an issue. Pause between thoughts. Your voice is an instrument. If you are making a dramatic point, build up to it through changes in tone.
7. Don’t lose your composure – I have yet to see a candidate lose a debate solely for being too civil. I have seen many lose solely by failing to be civil enough.