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Secrets Of Winning The Presidential Debates

Then-Sen. Barack Obama gets makeup applied at a presidential candidate forum in Lake Forest, Calif., on Aug. 16, 2008.
Alex Brandon
Then-Sen. Barack Obama gets makeup applied at a presidential candidate forum in Lake Forest, Calif., on Aug. 16, 2008.

TO: President Obama and Mitt Romney


RE: Prepping (and primping) for debates

With the first 2012 presidential debate slated for Wednesday night, we thought it might be helpful to pass along a few suggestions — some more substantive than others — to the participants.

We were inspired by a memo recently issued by Third Way, a Democratic advisory group — as reported by The Wall Street Journal. The memo offers a slew of helpful hints, including:

-- Start by writing your "dream" post-debate headline.
-- Develop a list of the three items you MUST say in the debate ... use it as a checklist before each answer — see if you can fit one in your answer.
-- Punches are good; counterpunches are better.
-- Study what your opponent has been saying, especially in the days just before debate ... 90 percent of what your opponent will say in the debate will have come out of his mouth in the week before.
-- Begin answers with "yes" or "no" if possible; answer first, then explain. ... Voters will see you as candid and responsive.

The author of the memo is Ron Klain, who served as chief of staff to Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden. Klain has also prepped several Democrats, including then-Gov. Bill Clinton in 1992 and Sen. John Kerry in 2004, for presidential debates.

Because Klain is helping Obama prepare this time around, the memo takes on additional import. But does it go far enough?

As a public service, we offer even more friendly, unsolicited advice to the candidates, from specialists in various fields.

For The Win

The secret to winning a debate? "When one defends," trial lawyer Gerry Spence tells NPR, "one is losing."

Any specific advice for Romney and Obama? "Be real," Spence says. "Be vulnerable."

Are there tricks or gimmicks a debater might use to gain the upper hand on an opponent?

"Trickery has no place" in a presidential debate, Spence says. "People recognize it immediately."

Alex Dukalskis, executive director of the International Debate Education Association in New York, adds: "The ethics of persuading viewers by misleading them through tricks are suspect. Debaters, presidential and otherwise, always want to win, but they have a responsibility to do so ethically."

Dressing For Success

When it comes to matters sartorial, Obama and Romney "should basically keep doing what they're doing," says fashion critic Robin Givhan of The Daily Beast and Newsweek. "Wearing proper business suits and not wearing their casual-earnest talk-regular guy ensembles of rolled-up shirt-sleeves and khakis or jeans."

President Obama often dons a gray striped tie on formal or sober occasions, Givhan points out, which "is a nice way of evoking power without resorting to the usual red or blue. Perhaps it's a little too East Coast for a debate with such a broad audience, but I think it would be refreshing and elegant."

Mitt Romney, she says, "wears a suit well, but he needs to be cautious so that he doesn't come across looking slick and mechanical. He's got the perfect hair with just the right hint of gray at the sideburns. ... A little imperfection in appearance would be helpful to him. Perhaps let his hair be ever so slightly tousled?"

The Voice

During the debates, Romney needs to "show genuine warm emotion in his voice and body language," says voice and body language guru Patti Wood. "A credible candidate's movement, gestures and expressions are in sync with what he is saying."

To underscore a sense of sincerity, Wood says, Romney should use more movement to illustrate what he is saying.

Obama, on the other hand, "is sounding and looking tired and strained. He needs to relax his voice so he can use it to make us feel confident in him."

The president's voice "used to be very rhythmical, powerful and charismatic, and he spoke with ease — very loudly without any vocal strain," Wood says. "Deep, low voices are perceived, according to research, as more authoritative, believable and trustworthy."

Body Talk

Gill Shermeister, co-creator of Body Language Cards, advises both candidates:

-- Never nod when the other candidate says negative things about you.
-- When you talk about the other candidate, look at the audience or camera, not at him. Occasionally gesture dismissively toward your opponent.
-- Welcome any question with a smile.
-- Keep your hands apart. Let people see that you have no need to protect your chest. Avoid any defensive posture. Do not cross your arms over your chest. ... It has to do with mutual trust.

Mitt Romney has makeup applied before a discussion on Capitol Hill on Sept. 14, 2005.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
Getty Images
Mitt Romney has makeup applied before a discussion on Capitol Hill on Sept. 14, 2005.

Making Up Is Hard To Do

Makeup for male politicians, explains Michele Probst — founder of Menaji Skincare for men — should appear natural and be undetectable. "It's about making the candidate look healthy and appealing," she says. "Not pretty."

For Obama's face she suggests a "nice matte." She adds: "I also wouldn't mind if he took away some of the earned gray hair. He needs to look fresh and ready to go."

And for Romney: "For such an attractive man, he certainly doesn't seem to have found a comfortable look."

The former governor "needs to go maybe a half-shade warmer than his natural skin tone."

And as for Romney's hair, perhaps "not so much product."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.