The theme for the last two days should be “Make America Debate Again.” The Democrats need a do-over if they’re going to nominate a candidate who can win in 2020. Here’s why the vast majority of candidates missed the mark last night.
(As a reminder, my angle is apolitical, solely evaluating the effectiveness of the messaging strategies of the various candidates on both sides of the aisle, looking at what is working for them, what isn’t, why, and what that implies for the future of the election. I keep my political preferences out of the discussion.)
As the second cohort of 10 candidates engaged in their first official debate, I was hopeful. Subconsciously I think I hoped that some of them had read my analysis yesterday of the first night’s debate, and taken heed of the Big Three lessons their counterparts had missed, to give us a much more powerful and valuable experience on day-two. Clearly, that did not happen.
The Big Three lessons the whole party needed to learn from their defeat in 2016 were:
- Use Sound-bite messaging for campaign promises – short, clear, concrete, memorable, results-oriented phrases to remind people of your promised deliverables as president, a-la “Make America Great Again”, “Build a Wall,” or “Repeal Obamacare.”
- Use Action Verbs in those sound bites (see previous examples) rather than “to be” static verbs regarding “being stronger together” or the need to “be united.” These statements are philosophical and contextual, not results to vote for.
- To Sustain the Credibility Factor by balancing Verbal, Vocal, and Visual communication cues. Both the content (verbal) and the delivery (vocal/visual) need to match up for listeners (especially voters) to buy into what you and your message. (For more on this, check out my new book: Speaking to Influence: Mastering Your Leadership Voice.)
Today, I want to focus on the biggest trends in missed opportunities in these three areas in Thursday’s debate. Specifically, the lack of summary sound bites for ANY candidate (with or without the action verb at the forefront), and the role that storytelling did, didn’t, and/or should have played in establishing each candidates’ credibility.
Just about any business professional can tell you the three stages of the standard business presentation: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you told them.” Not that a debate is a generic business presentation, but the relevance, in other words, is that people need to hear things three times, in the introduction, body, and conclusion, and those repetitions need to be clear, concise and concrete, in order to be understood and maybe remembered. In the debates, the key deliverables need to be identified up front, and reinforced at the end, as if to say, “If you forget everything else you heard tonight, remember these three things about me and what I’ll do for you.”
We all know that regardless of what the first question is, candidates will use that opportunity to identify all their top issues, and they all did. But why is it so hard to put them into sound bites that are concrete and outcome oriented? Einstein reportedly said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” (Further evidence that he was a genius.)
There were plenty of moments where candidates did include an example of such sound bites, but they were always in passing, in the middle of a much longer and more convoluted sentence, and got lost in the weeds:
- Senator Michael Bennett said he wanted to “end gerrymandering” and “overturn Citizens United.” Clear, practical, results oriented. Why did he gloss over them?
- VP Joe Biden referenced targets for renewable energy sources and electric vehicles, but in passing, not a core campaign message
- Mayor Pete Buttigieg referenced his promises for “Medicare for all who want it” and Free college tuition just for lower- and middle-income families, which he could have stated as “and free college tuition for all families that need it,” but didn’t reinforce them in the end. Instead he did mention climate solutions, racial equality, and an end to an endless war, which is a step in the right direction, but they’re abstract and/or generic references. Some “what/how-much-by-when” language would have made all the difference.
- Senator Kristin Gillibrand had the makings of some good, concrete sound bites, from creating “clean elections” (i.e. election reform) and a family bill of rights with a litany of deliverables therein, but it was a laundry list of topics, and nobody memorizes laundry lists. With no prioritized core of sound-bite deliverables at the end, the whole list – and the candidate – becomes forgettable.
- Senator Bernie Sanders, like Gillibrand, had a litany of deliverables that got lost in the tirades, from using Roe v. Wade as a litmus test for Supreme Court justices, to cutting the price of prescription drugs in half. He needed to pick a few priorities and reinforce them at the start and finish.
- Senator Kamala Harris had the first “breakout moment” of the night, as the evening began with everyone competing to speak, when she set the bar for leadership presence by commenting, “America doesn’t want to witness a food fight, they want to know how we’re going to put food on their table.” Although she had powerful stories (which I’ll get to later,) and a number of concrete deliverables such as banning imports of assault weapons, none were phrased in a way that was as singularly memorable as that breakout comment. She wrapped up with passing reference to her “3am plan” which would have been a perfect time to bullet out the specific objectives therein, but once again, the opportunity was lost.
- Gov. John Hickenlooper offered plenty of concrete, concise deliverables… but all in the past tense. They focused on what he DID for Colorado, not what he WILL DO for the US. He might think the connection should be obvious…but that’s not how it works.
- Rep. Eric Swalwell had a few quotable moments, but at best they were cute or clever rather than compelling, such as “Breaking up with Russia, and making up with NATO,” or comparing his current duties of changing policy at work with changing diapers at home – and musing that sometimes the diapers smell better than DC. If he had reinforced his plan to buy back all assault weapons with as pithy language at the beginning and end of the night rather than continually invoking his youth and the notion that it’s time to “pass the torch to the next generation” (i.e. most of his opponents are too old), it might have been easier to take him seriously as a competitor.
- Andrew Yang was clearly an underdog, which was reinforced by the fact that the moderators gave him all of about two minutes the whole evening. But that’s all the more reason that he of all people needed to have his elevator pitch down to a science.
- And finally, Marianne Williamson… oh, Marianne. Her one truly pithy, insightful moment pertained to the current handling of the immigration crisis, observing that taking children away from their parents and neglecting their basic needs, in any other context, would be considered kidnapping and child abuse. But aside from that, her many books on women, spirituality, love and the like may have positively impacted the lives of millions, but neither her “author’s voice” nor literal voice translated effectively to the political stage. Her lack of ability to state anything concrete, using very flowery language and talking in abstract terms about how love will prevail, merely confirmed that her skill and calling is in writing poetry and prayers, not policy. She belongs in Barnes & Noble, not Washington, DC.
Communication and influence are both art and science. The ability to distill your core campaign promises into concrete sound bites is simple science. The ability to craft your point into a persuasive story, however, is also an art form, and some candidates were much more artistic than others. Most had the supplies, and several picked up the paintbrush, but few painted a compelling picture:
- Bennett twice referenced the fact that his mother was a refugee from Poland during the Holocaust, but he said it as generically as if he had followed up with, “…and her name is Susanne” (which it is.) In discussing immigration policy, you didn’t think to give a few details about your family’s experience in the Holocaust? If you don’t recognize the importance of those experiences in your own family, how will people believe that you recognize the importance of critical experiences in theirs?
- Biden’s personal life has seen heart-wrenching tragedy, with losing his first wife and daughter in a car accident, and Iraq-war veteran son to cancer. He missed the opportunity to more explicitly link and reinforce how those experiences inform his current policy choices. Stories would have humanized the policies.
- Buttigieg had tons of fodder for stories and, frankly, was far more impressive than I expected, but let way too many story opportunities slip through his fingers. As a war veteran, he could have shared a field experience, such as detailing how it felt to train with or fire assault weapons as evidence of how he knows why they don’t belong in civilian hands. I was on the edge of my seat waiting for a Brene Brown-like moment of authoritative vulnerability when he started his response to the question about getting a more representative proportion of black police offers in South Bend by honestly stating: “I couldn’t get it done.” I was dying to know how he was going to turn that around with some powerful lesson learned… but he didn’t. (I guarantee his opponents – especially Donald Trump, should the opportunity arise – will find a way to use this against him, as they try to paint him as the guy who can't “get it done.”) And perhaps most powerful was when he shared the experience of having had to write a “Just in Case” letter for his family when leaving for military deployment. Just a sentence or two about the thought process of writing it and how he feels about it now would have made all the difference.
- Gillibrand gave a thorough list of accolades, but no details. She submitted a complete resume, but we wanted the cover letter too.
- Sanders is an artist in his own right, but his “medium” is statistics, lectures and tirades, not stories and personal experiences. His delivery was consistently passionate and angry, and he only has two hand gestures to go along with it: either a sweeping open hand that dismisses anything he doesn’t agree with, or his right thumb and forefinger tips touching and repeatedly “pecking” it at the audience as if his art form of choice were pointillism, using a golf pencil instead of a paintbrush, as if to say, “Listen to what I’m saying here-and-here-and-here.” He’s in Gillibrand’s camp of submitting resumes without cover letters. Like Biden, he is a well-known entity, stable and unchanging, love him or hate him, and the consistency of the brand is what he’s counting on.
- Harris, in my opinion, won the storytelling award last night, for quantity, quality, and delivery. On the one hand, she illustrated the need for some policy changes with generic, archetypal stories of parents hesitating to take their sick children to the ER because the insurance copay would immediately demand $5,000, and the thought processes of every Latin American mother who makes the soul-crushing choice of sending their young child with a coyote across the border into the US. And on the other hand, she shared very real details of her own experiences regarding school integration and busing as a child, and neighborhood children who weren’t allowed to play with her because she was black. These stories all drove home her one core message: “I get it.” And her delivery was both credible and relatable. Her presence and voice were authoritative without being authoritarian, passionate without slipping down the slope into the unfortunate “angry black woman” stereotype, and authentic while still contextually appropriate. Well done, Kamala.
- Hickenlooper seemed to have a solid track record of successes in Colorado, but not only was he in the story-free resume mode in talking about them, he also sabotaged himself by speaking too quickly with few pauses in meaningful places. I recall hearing important achievements, but he talked so quickly I couldn’t write them down fast enough while taking notes on my laptop, and I type over 80 words per minute. Storytelling rule of thumb: the strategic pause is one of the most important but underutilized rhetorical devices a speaker has. Learn to use it to your critical advantage.
- Swalwell had the perfect beginnings of a powerful story but missed the mark telling it. In discussing school gun violence, he described himself “as a parent, of a generation who sends our children to school where we look at what they’re wearing so we can remember it in case we have to identify them later.” It’s a powerful point, but his mistake was in using the word “we” instead of “I.” Telling this story mainly from the general perspective of a demographic (age) group waters down its power. How much more would people have felt for him and connected with him personally if he had said, “when I send my children to school, I look at what they’re wearing so I can remember it in case I have to identify them later”? In this case, “we” sounds like a politician. “I” sounds like a parent. Who would you trust more?
- Yang had so little time, he really only had the chance to make one point. Unfortunately, he chose to objectively explain how his $1000-per-adult program would work (think economic textbook), instead of illustrating it by creating an avatar, and walking the audience through a day in the life of the “Jones” family with or without that extra money (think storybook). Which version would you rather read?
- And finally, Williamson… also no stories, but instead of sounding like an economic textbook, she ran in the other direction, sounding like new-age political Reiki (no offense to Reiki practitioners): there are people who will “feel” it, but it’s too “out there” for most.
My prediction: By default, most people will vote for the candidate who makes them feel “safe.” While Biden and Sanders may have taken the lead in the polls, it is primarily because they are so well known. People feel safe with the “what you see is what you get” brand stability, and the difference between them is whether voters find any reference to socialism to be hopeful or scary. HOWEVER, for another candidate to come from behind and take the lead, they’ll need to follow my rules from yesterday and today and get their brand messaging down to concise, concrete, outcome-oriented sound bites, repeated consistently at key moments, and illustrated with relatable, personal stories.
In my opinion, based on these factors alone, Kamala Harris was the only one this time who showed signs of being able to do that. She joins the ranks of Cory Booker and Bill DeBlasio as the current candidates with the most potential – if they take my advice – to talk their way past establishment candidates Biden and Sanders to the nomination, and past Trump to the White House.