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  • Writer's pictureKarla Beltchenko


Presidential Debate 2020

As the November 3rd election draws near, many Americans are feeling political fatigue, and while most have already made up their minds on who they will be voting for, 8% of Americans are still undecided (according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted between October 9-13).

For those still uncertain, they might be tuning in to the final presidential debate as a source of information about the candidate's plan to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, resuscitate the economy, improve healthcare, etc.

While the debates are usually meant to be a great source of information, the previous presidential debate proved to be anything but. It was a chaotic event that was filled with mixed messages, misinformation, and a lot of interruptions. America and the entire world watched the so-called train-wreck debate, the UK based Times described the event as "an ill-tempered and at times incomprehensible squabble between two angry septuagenarians who palpably loathe each other"


Historically the debate stage has been the perfect place for the candidates to tap into the viewer's rational AND emotional sides. We are drawn into the argument not just by what the candidates are saying but how they deliver their statements. Body language has played a significant role in debates since they were first televised in 1960. The televised debate allows us to see how the candidates can handle the pressure, command the stage, and deliver an honest proposal for the future.

Historians attribute John F. Kennedy's slim win in the 1960 election to his bronzed skin, rested demeanor, and direct eye contact with the camera. These nonverbal factors gave him a slight edge over the visibly pale, tired, and shifty-eyed Richard Nixon.


Physical appearance aside, we can use body language as a tool (among others) to find the candidate that resonates with you.

We advise our clients who are preparing for a big speech or presentation to videotape themselves and then watch it back on mute, paying close attention to the messages their body is communicating. To communicate your values, you need your body language and verbal message to be in alignment.

80% of communicative information comes from the physical body. We are more likely to watch the way someone says something AND how they say it rather than what they say. This is where content takes a back seat in communication; we can understand the tone, complexity, and authenticity of the message based on the physical body alone.

If the first debate is an indicator of how this one will play out, useful content will be at a premium. We can expect another gloves-off debate aimed at pushing buttons, obscuring one's understanding of facts, and giving undecided voters one last nudge into red or blue territory.

The candidates will be well-practiced, coached, and even choreographed in how they carry their bodies and use gestures. However, the thing about body language is that it's emotional and often spontaneous, especially when considering a live debate setting where the opponents are looking to throw one another off their game. When a candidate gets challenged, agitated, or flustered, emotions can get the best of them, often disrupting their ideal choreographed performance. Nonverbal indicators like a red face, aggressive or defensive gestures (accusatory pointing), Eye rolls, sudden shifts in posture, and unexpected facial expressions will be apparent. These nonverbal indicators can often be momentary and fleeting but can indicate the candidates' inner narrative.

If you are still undecided who you will vote for on November 3, tune into the debate on Thursday, take some time to listen, learn and then press MUTE. Start by observing the candidate's body language and sense how their nonverbal behavior resonates with you. Does the candidate's nonverbal attitude align with their verbal message? Can they conduct themselves with grace under pressure? Does their nonverbal message convey confidence and preparedness to take on the Presidency?

On the topic of MUTE, In the hopes of having a better outcome for this debate, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced Monday that each candidate will have their mic cut off during the opposition's initial two-minute answers to each topic.



The dynamic behind a gesture can uncover the meaning

When you see a student's hand shoot up in a classroom, you know (without any other information) they confidently know the answer. If you see a hand raised with hesitancy, you can sense they are not 100% sure of themselves. The hand-raising example is a universal way of understanding physically motivated movement with meaning or intent. Based on the dynamic of the gesture, we can uncover the meaning or emotion behind it. When the debate temperature gets turned up, you can see the dynamics of gestures begin to change. If a candidate becomes angry or defensive, their gestures tend to be sudden, straight, erratic, and short. The motions can even look heavy as if they are pushing something away. Additionally, you can often see muscular tension in their fingers, arms, face, and shoulders if they feel attacked, unsure, or out of control.

On the other hand, if a candidate is at ease and confident, you might observe more sustained, direct, free, and light gestures. Their shoulders will be relaxed, and their posture tall. Sometimes you can sense a rhythm to the gesture that aligns with a verbal statement. Gestures tend to look more welcoming such as the symmetrical visual of drawing both hands inwards to mimic the idea of "togetherness" or gently draw both hands to the heart to convey empathy and understanding.

Eye Contact

When the candidates address the American people, they should be making a conscious effort to make eye contact with the camera rather than primality looking at the other opponent. Eye contact is a powerful way of making a long-lasting impression. It is the primary way to communicate acknowledgment and connect with others. Making an effort to hold eye contact with the camera is a perfect way for a candidate to reach through the screen and connect with the American public.

Facial Expressions and Body Posture

Facial expressions tend to be emotional and often are spontaneously occurring. If you are not well practiced in your poker face, emotional facial expressions can allow your inner thoughts to disrupt the current conversation. However, facial expressions are unique to each individual; some subtle facial expressions are more difficult to decipher than we think. The body is often used as a secondary source to confirm or deny the observed facial expression's accuracy. For example, if you sense someone is making a sad facial expression, you might look to the body posture to confirm your hypothesis. Slumped posture, rounded shoulders, slow or heavy moments could verify your hypothesis. If you observe nonverbal indicators such as tall posture, open gestures, and light movement, you might second guess your initial observation. Observing facial expressions from the debate can be tricky; however, you might have an easier time on mute. Without listening to the verbal sparring, you can focus on the facial expression in relation to the candidate's body posture and movement.

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