Democratic Debate -Round 9
All politics aside (as with all of my posts), we have to thank former NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg for bringing an as-yet-unseen level of energy to the Democratic debates, and providing some of the clearest illustrations of the power of the Three Vs: Verbal, Vocal and Visual alignment – and their effect on establishing credibility and a strong leadership image.
Naturally, a good advertisement with good photographs and B-roll footage and a good voice-actor narrator can make anyone seem like the perfect candidate, and $300M worth of such advertising can – and did – make him seem better than much of the competition, as some polls were starting to show leading up to the debate. But without a vocal stunt double, a director, or someone to yell “cut” and try again, reality hits hard, and it hit Bloomberg like a ton of bricks on stage. Why?
The Difference Between Bloomberg and Trump
Although many opponents tried to paint Bloomberg as another Trump, there is one HUGE difference between the two: President Trump has an overabundance of charisma and on-stage/camera presence. Whether you love him or hate him, his words, voice and body language are all 100% committed to everything he is saying, and makes you believe that HE passionately believes everything he is saying. As a result, when he speaks – whether boasting about his own success or dismissing allegations of sexual harassment and racist comments – he manages to further galvanize his followers and stoke their trust in him.
Michael Bloomberg, in contrast, has NONE of that. On stage, he has all the warmth, personality and charisma of a jellyfish. His answers were simple and to-the-point for the most part, which is good, and he didn’t flinch much when the barrage of attacks came right at the starting gate from Elizabeth Warren and others. But he was also the poster-child of LACK of alignment in messaging, which is why he not only went down, he went down in flames.
Visually, his facial expression never moved, even when trying to sidestep Warren’s challenge to him to release women from signed non-disclosure agreements regarding harassment. Paired with the dismissive verbal comments like how maybe some of the women just didn’t like his jokes (hardly NDA-worthy), his overly-stoic presence made it seem like even HE didn’t believe what he was saying, and was merely reciting lines his lawyers had told him to say. If you’re just going through the motions, people can tell, and they don’t buy into it.
“Unpleasant” Voices — it's not just for women anymore!
Vocally, Bloomberg’s voice lacks any trace of warmth, empathy or relatability. His volume, pace, and pitch barely wavered, and came across as cold and flat. While many have complained about not liking Elizabeth Warren’s voice, and I’ve called out Amy Klobuchar multiple times on her trembling voice as projecting nerves and a lack of authority, Bloomberg’s voice aesthetic ranks dead-last. It reflected many of the qualities that Hillary Clinton frequently got accused of having in her voice. But while most people (especially men, statistically) won’t consciously recognize this because “unpleasant voices” are stereotypically associated as a negative female trait, it will have the same negative effect on viewers – men and women alike – on a subconscious level.
What about Content (Verbal)?
Even verbally, Bloomberg was no better than anyone else with regard to the issues I’ve been calling for from the start: He told no stories, included no “tweetable-and-repeatable” campaign promises, and used no memorable refrains. Performance-wise, he sounded exactly like a businessman-turned-politician: the worst of both worlds.
Ironically, he also managed to bring out the BEST alignment and performance in some of his opponents.
If anyone was previously concerned that Elizabeth Warren didn’t have the strength and fortitude to handle Donald Trump on stage, much less the presidency, last night may not have 100% convinced them otherwise, but she sure as heck made them think twice, as she came out with guns blazing and never backed down. Her attacks on Bloomberg were clear, concise, and powerful, and her delivery was passionate without crossing the dangerous double-standard line into sounding “bitchy” or “nagging.” With the exception of her persistent “no-no-no” head motion (Senator, get that under control!), in those exchanges, she came across as strong, authoritative, compelling and credible as someone who might have what it takes after all. Well done.
Biden – Revived
Bloomberg’s presence also seems to have given a B-12 shot to Joe Biden. He was energized in a way we haven’t seen in a long time. That energy, matched with an equally uncommon ease of retrieving stats and crafting phrases that highlighted his experience and accomplishments also reminded followers why he’s the most qualified person for the job – and that he is, in fact, ready for it. He also managed to incorporate a few good refrains, such as “I’m the guy who…” with regard to issues such as healthcare and Latin American trade policies, and “reward work, not wealth,” which is a GREAT “tweetable-and-repeatable” slogan that he used three times last night, and should be used multiple times every time he is in front of a microphone. If he used one or both of those refrains in every answer he gave, aligned with that energy and focus, he’d surge right back to the top of the polls and stay there.
The rest – Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, and Pete Buttigieg – were consistent, but ultimately forgettable.
Alignment-wise, Buttigieg was close, but no cigar. He was as smooth, articulate and unflappable as ever. One oddity was that it didn’t look like he had shaved; someone should have had him watch tapes of the Nixon-Kennedy debate. And while he may have had one or two good lines (e.g. implying that Bloomberg and Sanders shouldn’t lead the ticket because neither of them is technically a Democrat), a few good lines doesn’t make a memorable performance. Even his closing statement was boring. Generic content, even delivered well, has no impact.
Klobuchar gets points for a few good stories and passion, but her voice still trembled, if somewhat less than previous debates; she still used her favorite filler, “Uh,” over and over in every answer; and she still made erroneous if not utterly ridiculous comments such as her suggestion that the best way to stop sexism on the internet is to nominate a woman. (???) Her lack of alignment does convey one consistent conclusion: she may have some good ideas and have a good heart, but “she’s got no game.”
And Sanders… is Sanders. To his credit, he is the most consistent messenger on the stage. I recently saw some footage of him from back in 1987, and with the exception of having more hair, he was still saying the exact same things he’s saying today, in the exact same way. It’s actually quite impressive. So, when your content and delivery are in such good and consistent alignment and it’s STILL not working, it begs the question:
The answer is that the message content isn’t clear and compelling enough to be digested, despite well-aligned delivery. For example, for decades, he has been unable to meaningfully and memorably convey to the masses how his Medicare For All program saves money. He repeats the explanation that taxes go up but other costs go down or are eliminated entirely, so while the words are accurate, they’re not sinking in.
Leadership communication lesson #1:
You have to be able to explain things in a way that are not merely “correct,” but in a way that others are able to hear it and understand it. If they don’t “get it,” they won’t “get you.”
Take note, candidates (and leaders of any sort, anywhere):
- Stories are relatable; statistics are not.
- Vocal variation compels people to listen; constantly yelling at them does not.
- Tweetable–and–repeatable refrains that stand out are memorable; haranguing and rambling, run-on sentences do not.
And when you have honed your message, if you don’t want it to fall in deaf ears, think good and hard about your delivery if you want it to land with the desired effect.