Presidential debate: Five things you should never say in a debate, according to rhetoric experts

Debate experts weigh in on what not to do during a debate

Graig Graziosi
Friday 25 September 2020 16:46
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Donald Trump says he will 'sign executive order' against Joe Biden as president

The first presidential debate of the 2020 US election is just days away. The debate will be the first chance for American voters to see Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden test each other's records  and policies face to face before casting a ballot this November.

Winning a debate is more than just a feather in the cap of a candidate. A candidate's debate performance - even during the general election - can deflate a candidate's base or motivate donors to open their wallets.  

Political candidates - particularly during the primaries - will spend weeks preparing for the showdowns with their rivals, often through the use of mock debates and rigorous drills reviewing their talking points.  

Mr Trump and Mr Biden have downplayed their preparations, or at least that's what they're telling reporters.  

The president recently told the press that he was preparing for the debate by "doing what I'm doing," and Mr Biden said he planned to begin his debate prep in earnest five days before the event.  

Winning the debate seems straightforward; whoever has a better handle of their talking points and looks and sounds more presidential will likely be considered the victor. But knowing what to do on stage is just as important as knowing what not to do.  

The Independent spoke with debate and rhetoric experts to better understand all the pitfalls candidates have to avoid if they hope to come out on top during the debates.  

5. Don't go over your time

Dr Todd Graham, the Director of Debate at Southern Illinois University, known by some as "America's Debate Coach," has been named the national debate coach of the year three times and has judged more than 8,000 debates. He regularly writes columns analysing primary and presidential campaign debates during election years.  

One of Dr Graham's tips for debaters is to avoid talking past a given time limit for a question.  

Though some may think blowing off the rules and demanding to be heard is a way of showing dominance, aggression, and an unyielding spirit, Dr Graham says that in reality it does more harm than good.  

"You don't want to go overtime. So many times if you go over, you'll be working up this crescendo, working toward a big point at the end of your message, but you find the moderators frequently interrupting you to tell you your time is up," Dr Graham said. "Not only can that deflate your momentum, but even if you do finish, the audience may not actually hear your point over the interrupting moderator."  

At the same time, Dr Graham warned that while a candidate shouldn't talk over their time, they also should practice to ensure they don't end their sentences mid-way through a point.  

4. Don't project uncertainty or weakness  

Though it goes without saying, a candidate needs to appear strong if they hope to come out on top in a debate.  

Dr Tammy Vigil, associate professor of communication at Boston University who has authored books on presidential debates and rhetoric, said that candidates with bad posture, darting eyes, and who make use of verbal filler worlds like "uhm" and "uh" tend to project weakness to their audiences.  

Candidates also have to appear engaged with the debate and aware of every action they take, lest they inadvertently telegraph something to the audience they didn't intend.

During a 1992 presidential debate between the incumbent George H W Bush and his rivals, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, Mr Bush checked his watch while a town hall participant was asking him about the impact the recession had on him personally.  

The gesture - intended or not - made Mr Bush appear out of touch and cold to an American populace looking for relief.  

"Little moments from races can become memorable and can stimulate a base one way or the other," Dr Vigil said. "When George HW Bush checked his watch, it invited criticism; people asked 'oh is it past his bedtime' because he was older than his rivals, or they insinuated that he wasn't interested in what was being discussed."

She said that even little moments can completely throw off a candidate's momentum. 

3. Don't get dragged off message

According to Dr Vigil, some critics of modern presidential debates claim the events aren't debates at all, but rather duelling press conferences for the candidates. That bit of criticism is rooted in a common piece of advice given to politicians when they're learning to deal with the media; answer the question you wish you'd been asked.  

In other words, politicians tend to duck and dodge hard questions by attempting to reframe the enquiry and answer it in a way that furthers their own agenda or talking points. While they might be an effective way to juke a reporter's question, it doesn't make for a compelling debate.  

Because going on the defensive can make a candidate look weak, they're coached to stay on topic.  

"Sounding assertive is good, but sounding defensive is bad," Dr Vigil said. "In this upcoming debate between Trump and Biden, Biden has to be careful not to get baited by Trump into sounding foolish or looking defensive or combative."  

Going off message or chasing tangents can be especially damaging in the upcoming debates, as both candidates are well into their 70's, and both have accused the other of having declining mental acuity.  

"If I were coaching Trump, I'd tell him to avoid straying off topic," Dr Vigil said. "He tends to go stream of consciousness on folks and that's something he should avoid doing. He's complained that Biden might not mentally be all there, but then he provides evidence that he has the same problem when he can't stick to a topic."

2. Don't play against your image

When a candidate is running for president, they're not just running as an individual, they're running as the symbolic representation of a political ideology.  

Mr Trump is not just running as Donald Trump; he's running as the law and order president. As the guy who is going to cut taxes and bring the economy back through sheer force of will and business savvy. He is pure, unfiltered resentment made flesh. He's the guy who will tell the liberals, and Antifa and anarchists and Black Lives Matter where they can shove it.  

Likewise, Mr Biden isn't just running as Joe Biden. He's running as the guy who understands loss. He understands pain. He's good and decent and he's going to cleanse the filth of the last four years from the Oval Office. He's going to restore decency to the US.  

The candidates have built these larger-than-life personas for themselves to help sell themselves to the public. As a result, they have to maintain those images lest they undermine their support base.  

"I used to say if I was coaching a Democratic candidate on how to debate Trump, I'd tell them to cuss at him," Dr Graham said. "However, once Biden won the nomination, I took it back, because he's running on 'I have empathy, I am a kind person.' So now he can't get mad or cuss."  

He suggested Mr Biden stick to using humor to win over the crowd and to quote Mr Trump's words - as well as the criticisms of others about Mr Trump - back at him.  

Dr Graham suggested Mr Trump would do well to lean on his own humor and to focus on his accomplishments pre-coronavirus, if he wants a strong showing.  

1. Don't lose control of the room

The quickest way to appear weak during a debate is to lose control of the room.  

A confident, well prepared candidate can field a difficult or combative question forfeiting their command of the debate stage. If they haven't done the work to prepare though, debaters may find themselves scrambling to answer a question or deflect a criticism without appearing foolish.  

Dr Graham believes Mr Trump will do his best to try to make Mr Biden angry during the debate in an effort to portray the former vice president as confused, frustrated old man.  

"Trump is good at triggering people, and he'll have a lot of tricks to trigger Biden. Biden has trouble controlling his anger once it comes out. This goes all the way to when he was vice president and he was debating Paul Ryan. Once he loses his temper, he doesn't know how to reign it back in, and he just ends up yelling constantly," Mr Graham said. "If he lets Trump get the better of him, he'll have several bad debates."  

He said that candidates who want to appear in control need to first practice until they have a perfect understanding of their talking points. Second, their attitude needs to telegraph confidence, control, and assertiveness without crossing the line into arrogance, bullying and aggressiveness.  

"It's all about attitude. Attitude is what wins debates, oftentimes even for coaches and experts," Dr Graham said. "You want to have a big attitude, but if you come off cocky or rude, it'll be a turn off. There are subtle ways of doing everything. Just about anything in a debate could be good or bad depending on how you do it."

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