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Presidential beyond words

How everything you don’t say makes you a leader

by Line Tabet

“Obama’s weaknesses on full display in debate”; “Obama admits debate performance a flop”; “In debate style and body language, Romney trumps Obama”.

These have been the sort of remarks making headlines since the first of the three United States presidential debates in the run-up to the vote between Democratic incumbent, President Barack Obama, and Republican candidate Governor Mitt Romney. As expected, the debate has been extensively analyzed in the hopes of predicting who might become the next American president. What was especially striking about the media coverage this time was the excessive attention given to the candidates’ physical language, across both serious and comedic media, which seems to have played a major role in their proclamation of the first debate’s winner.

While the analysis of body language might seem trivial to many, becoming the preferred subject of comedy and spoof shows, some studies have shown that only 7 percent of communication is conveyed through actual words, whereas 93 percent is nonverbal communication. The most telling and over-used example of this is the first American televised presidential debate: The 1960 Richard Nixon versus John F. Kennedy debate. It has become a popular reference that Nixon, the accomplished politician, failed to impress in the face of a young and novice candidate, mainly because he refused to wear makeup.  

Whether the above percentages are accurate or whether we agree or not with the analysis of the Nixon debate, one cannot discount the importance of body language in a public or media setting, whereby posture, facial expressions, hand gestures, voice and dress code have become key components to be taken into account, alongside messaging and content. Trying to predict the winner of the American elections through body language is no doubt a fortune telling assignment. However, given that the whole world is closely watching this event, and that all eyes are riveted on American media screens, we cannot but stop and examine the presidential and vice-presidential debates to illustrate the basics of body language and extract key takeaways, as well as some ‘Dos’ and ‘Don’ts’. Furthermore, keeping in mind that the victor of the elections may well be known by the time you read this article, it is worthwhile exploring whether all this hype about the two candidates’ nonverbal performance had any real value.

Posture: the manifestation of confidence

The reason some viewers may have confused Obama’s first presidential debate with that of a daily press briefing is because of his perceived “defeatist” attitude and posture. His body language communicated stress and anxiety: leaning on one foot, tilting his head to the side and slouching his shoulders. He came across as unsure of himself, lacking energy and outright bored. On the other hand, Romney seemed calm, projecting passion and motivation, whereby his overall posture was straight and upright, conveying confidence and poise, all of which translated into positive energy.  

Facial Expressions: telling it all at a glance

A month prior to election day with polls providing all kinds of forecasts as to voter intentions, candidates need to speak to voters and rally them, be they supporters or opponents, and especially the undecided ones they are trying to win over. Therein lies the importance of appearing to address each and every one of them. And what better way to do so than establishing eye contact so as to give every viewer the impression of being spoken to directly. Both Romney and current Vice President Joe Biden played this card successfully, as they stared straight at the camera to address voters, conveying both candor and caring. 

On the other hand, Obama’s genuine smile, one that has become his trademark over the years, looked dull and faded because of the negative energy he exuded. He was often seen pursing his lips, especially when listening to Romney’s arguments. This brings us to one of the main challenges that face incumbents during such debates: to avoid appearing condescending and patronizing or looking at their opponents with disdain and arrogance. A challenge both men failed to meet. 

Hand gestures: adding punch through motion

The art of hand gestures may seem like a secondary element of body language, one that comes naturally and spontaneously. However, it can strongly affect the image of any politician or public figure, either by making them appear tense or agitated or by adding emphasis and impact to their messages. Indeed, those with overly animated hand gestures often distract viewers, as their attention is drawn to the hand rather than the content and messages. As such, the “Golden Rule” when it comes to hand gestures is to avoid excessiveness. When it came to persuading voters with gestures, Romney outdid Obama in the first debate. Indeed, they were in sync with his speech, reaching out to his audience, creating a feeling of openness, and ultimately making some messages more memorable to the audience.

Voice: conveying impactful messages through delivery 

Recent award-winning movies, including The Iron Lady and The King’s Speech, have shown the importance of voice in conveying leadership: Margaret Thatcher in the midst of vocal training, working on the pitch of her voice to project power and authority, and the lessons of King George VI with his speech therapist to cope with his stammer. These have become iconic scenes that support the claim that voice can accentuate leadership attributes and is an effective means to influence and impact the audience. During election time, the debate’s objectives are to inspire people and mobilize them to vote. Hence the importance of one’s voice, as it transforms lexis into impactful messages and memorable sound bites through the appropriate use of pitch, tone, volume, rate and articulation. Varying the tone of voice allows one to convey dynamism and enthusiasm, which are key to emphasizing pivotal ideas.

Whereas Romney was confident in delivering his messages, speaking eloquently and clearly, Obama had a slower delivery, resorting to verbal fillers, and making long pauses. This did not play to his favor, despite succeeding in projecting empathy and compassion when he softened his tone of voice to mention his grandmother in the context of social security and his fight for the American middle class.

Dress code: the clothes that make the man

Red is typically the color of the power tie, a memo that Romney received and understood, with his dark red striped tie popping on screen during the debate, compared to Obama’s royal blue tie which blended in with the purple background and reinforced his sense of fatigue. The specific choice of color is of course not the point here; what is important to remember is that speakers must always choose attire that accentuates their presence and aura. This example confirms that dress code goes beyond style and can actually influence the image of a public figure, clearly helping to make a strong and positive impact.

Everything comes 

in pairs 

Jon Stewart dedicated an episode of his satirical show, “The Daily Show” to the exaggerated hype given to the candidates’ body language after the first debate, with some media going to extremes by counting the number of blinks for each candidate. However, this definitely subsided following the second debate, with the focus shifting toward content, arguments and promises made by each.

With the parliamentary elections in Lebanon, Jordan, Qatar and Egypt “theoretically” around the corner, potential candidates can stand to learn a lot from the US elections’ experience when it comes to polishing their body language in the hope of possibly compensating for the huge gap in their rhetoric, which remains sorely lacking. When it comes to media performance, and as the saying “everything comes in pairs” goes, it boils down to content and physical language, two ingredients that need to complement each other in order to ensure a successful recipe.

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Line Tabet


Zeina Loutfi

Zeina Loutfi works for Lebanese communication experts S2C

Ramsay G. Najjar

Ramsay G. Najjar is founder of Lebanese communication experts S2C

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