Lessons from the VP Debate

Posted 10.03.2008

Debate In last night’s VP nominee debate, Sarah Palin ended a rough week (thanks to her new “best friends” Katie Couric and Tina Fey) on an up note.  According to polls conducted by CNN, Palin exceeded the expectations of 84 percent of debate viewers.  In last night’s performance, Palin offered some lessons for leaders who need to connect with an audience.

In true custom-fit communications style, Palin was outcome oriented and audience specific.  The outcome she wanted?  Establish her credibility after two weeks of creating doubt in her abilities.   The audience she wanted to reach?  In her words, the folks sitting around the kitchen table.

How did she do it?  I’d argue that she understood and acted on three key factors.  In a landmark study on oral communications, UCLA’s Albert Mehrabian concluded that the impact of spoken communications is dependent on three things:

•    Content – 7 percent of total impact
•    Tone of voice – 38 percent of total impact
•    Body language and facial expression – 55 percent of total impact

Want to see how Mehrabian’s findings play out in real time?  Take a look at this compilation clip of Palin last night.  If you watch it through the 2:00 mark, you’ll see how 93 percent of Palin’s impact comes through in her tone and body language.  Note how she connects with the “folks at the table” by looking straight into the camera.  Watch the variation in her facial expressions.  Listen to her intonations and her familiar way of speaking.  The message she’s sending?  I’m one of you.

What about Joe Biden?  He did pretty well himself.  In fact, the CNN poll had him winning the debate 51 percent to 36 percent.  On the question of qualifications to be VP, 87 percent said Biden is qualified while 42 percent said Palin is.  But 54 percent of the polled viewers said Palin was the more likable of the two.  While Biden did a very nice job and exceeded the expectations of 64 percent of the viewers, he didn’t quite connect in the same way.  I could see two possible reasons for this.  He probably over relied on his content knowledge and he often directed his responses to the debate moderator.  The effect of that was that he didn’t look directly at the camera which meant he wasn’t looking directly at the viewer at home.

The takeaway for you as a leader?  It’s not all about the content.  It’s at least as much about how you deliver as what you deliver in your communications.  What’s coming up on your calendar in the next couple of weeks where you could benefit from thinking clearly about the outcome you’re trying to create, the audience you’re trying to reach and how you need to show up to do that?