Whenever a debate occurs, no matter the format, it’s good to remember that what we are watching is a performance. A performance with specific intentions set by the candidates looking to make an emotional impact on the viewing audience. Body language has a lot to do how we receive and perceive their message.
As the final presidential debate began last night, Donald Trump’s voice was quieter and his movements were more contained at the lectern than they have been in the past. This choice made him appear more disciplined in terms of letting Hillary Clinton speak and then using his time to disagree. As the debate went on, his voice became stronger and he used his natural ability to emphasise words. So far, so good.
Trump used his hands freely to express himself though his ability to make eye contact to the live and viewing person audience seemed limited. He mainly looked at the moderator, Chris Wallace, or at Clinton. Eye contact is one of the strongest ways to connect to an audience. When eye contact is limited, as in Trump’s case, an audience can feel they are on the outside looking in, as opposed to being included in the debate experience.
Where Trump’s body language worked against him is when he got agitated. Debates are agitating and that’s part of the process. With Trump, his agitation became apparent when he started pointing his index finger at Clinton and leaning into the microphone to interrupt, comment or make a point.
The leaning in took away from his physical presence. Standing tall would have allowed Trump to command the debate stage more, which would have shown him as powerful. He also seemed to fuss with the microphone at different points, and while there may have been a good reason for it, it was distracting.
Finally, it appeared petty to call Clinton a “nasty woman” at the end of the debate. That comment, and previous debate comments that she was “the devil” and had “hate in her heart”, made him look like a bully in the school yard.
For the most part, Clinton was calm at the lectern and used her hands in an expressive manner when she spoke. She appeared to make good eye contact with both the live and viewing audience as well as with the moderator.
What stood out for me throughout the debate was that Clinton was much more forceful both in the tone of her voice and her vocal emphasis. She was quicker to respond, her tone was sharper and she gestured over to Trump much more than in previous debates. This worked well for her and conveyed a sense of power. She did talk over Trump at times and continued to talk at times when the moderator was trying to rein her in, but even this was much more effective than at previous debates where she was too contained.
Clinton did occasionally fall into her habit of speaking in a slow, measured tone of voice. The few times she did this, I found myself tuning out from whatever she was saying. When she does use more rehearsed answers, her eyes drop down and she loses her connection to the viewing audience. She is an obviously intelligent person but can get caught in the trap of trying to stuff her answers with too much information. Whether it’s an economic plan or an approach to reducing the debt, two or three strong points is much more effective than an overly detailed plan of action. There isn’t enough time for an audience to digest all that information and with Clinton, less would be much more effective.
Clinton’s performance during the debate overall was stronger than Trump’s, both in her ability to push back at his attacks and her ability to answer questions with a depth of knowledge. Trump’s generalistic answers and refusal to say that he would accept the results of the election overshadowed his message.
Karol Ward is a psychotherapist, confidence expert and professional speaker from New York City
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