Head of the Class or Back of the Pack: What to look for in Thursday’s debate

Thursday evening is Round 3 of the Democratic primary debates, but the question is whether the third time’s the charm that puts someone in the lead, or a curse that ends a campaign.

With ten people all competing for attention and votes, the answer will depend on one fundamental issue: whether or not their performance is MEMORABLE. Being memorable requires a balance of two things: being CONCISE (thus easy to understand and retain,) and RELATABLE (therefore likeable).

This is why candidates need to step up their game: because it’s the only chance they’ll have to convert some hearts and minds, and persuade enough people to jump on their bandwagon and help them get to Round 4. Lesson: If they don’t remember you, they’ll never help you win.

There are 3 key factors I’ll be looking for in the candidates’ performance: Core campaign promises, Personal stories, and a Call to action. Here’s why:

  1. Core campaign promises: Candidates need to summarize their stance on each issue in a way that is what I call “tweetable and repeatable.” If they can’t get their own promise into a sound bite of about a half-dozen simple words, nobody else will either. Then nobody will remember it well enough to be able to repeat it. Not only will candidates need to know and be ready with the details, but be able to drive the sound bite home, repeatedly and verbatim.
  2. Personal stories: The simple fact is that stories bring data – and policies – to life. Statistics and logical explanations get slowly processed in the neocortex: the emotionless calculator part of the brain. Concise, well-told, personal stories trigger an emotional reaction in the amygdala: the part of the brain that works on instinct, reflex, and survival. People remember how you made them feel far more than what you made them think about. Want people to remember you well enough to DO something? Tell a powerful story that makes their pupils dilate.
  3. Call to Action: On the first night of Round 2 debates in July, Bernie Sanders was the only candidate savvy enough to end the night by giving the audience a single, clear, immediately actionable instruction: “Go to BernieSanders.com…” It’s genius because it’s easy to understand, easy to remember, and most importantly, it’s easy to complete, and it directly impacts his ability to get to the next round. Needless to say, the next night nearly all of the candidates followed suit – some much more effectively than others – and as I predicted here, there’s an unsurprising parallel between which candidates had powerful closing statements with a clear call to action, and who’s here for Round 3.

There’s one more factor that will make or break the effectiveness of each of these elements: Not only does the content need to be strong, it needs to be delivered with a critical balance of variation AND authenticity. This is challenging but critical.

For example, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker did a great job of this in Round 1, being appropriately serious and passionate at times, but easy going and approachable at others. That flexibility gives voters a chance to relate to them on multiple levels.

In contrast, in Round 1, Tulsi Gabbard and Michael Bennett were consistently flat in their delivery. Some may have seen it as positive and unflappable, which is good, but too many other viewers could have interpreted their demeanor as lacking the internal “fire” necessary for the job, much less to beat Donald Trump. Showing a “spark” here and there would have gone a long way. Note that neither of them made it to Round 3.

So on Friday morning after the debate ask yourself: Who stands out most in your memory? And how much of it is what they made you THINK about, vs. how you FELT about them? Why? The answer is where you’ll find the powers of persuasion and influence… and a good sense of who will make it to Round 4.

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