Five leadership communication lessons from the US presidential debate

While last week’s U.S. presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump did not earn many positive reviews, such encounters are always worth watching for lessons in leadership communication.

In three decades of advising and coaching business and government leaders of all major parties, I’ve helped many prepare for high-stakes encounters. The debate reminded me of five leadership communication principles that always hold true when the stakes are highest – no matter who the leaders are, and whether or not their main competitor stands beside them.

A look at these principles suggests why post-debate polls clearly favoured the challenger.

1. Communicate with empathy
The most successful leaders root their communication in empathy. Biden showed that consistently at the debate. He spoke about people who had lost their livelihoods or loved ones during the pandemic. He spoke to the victims of floods, fires, and droughts. He stood with those who had suffered discrimination, racism, and injustice.

Trump showed empathy when he talked about the hardships and social problems facing people stuck at home during the lockdown. Often, however, he reserved his empathy for himself, positioning himself as a victim of attacks by the media.

2. Connect with your audience
Ever since the first Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960, the best leadership communication involves congruity between what you say and how you say it through eye contact, gestures, and tone.

Trump rarely took his eyes off his opponent. His tone was aggressive and often dismissive of both Biden and the moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News. While thrown off by Trump in the early going and looking often to the moderator for intervention, Biden’s eyes eventually found the camera, allowing him to address many of his remarks to viewers at home, in a tone that was usually calm and measured. This both telegraphed his focus and, at times, invited his core or swing voters to share his disapproval with the president’s performance.

3. Demonstrate vision and action
Under pressure, leaders often make the mistake of rooting their remarks in the past (their records) and the present (what they are doing now). At moments of strife, however, justifying the past is less important. Leadership demands painting a picture of a better future — and the plan to get there.

Both leaders were light on this score, offering few specifics about what they would do if elected. Trump tended to look back at the last four years, using hyperbole to take credit for the pre-COVID economy (“the greatest economy in history”), and promising a return to the same.

While Biden also looked back – taking credit for ending the last great recession as vice president, and leaving Trump an historically strong economy – he painted a more vivid picture about the future. His themes included ending the pandemic, healing the nation’s racial divide, creating jobs and fighting climate-related disasters. He offered some specifics, speaking about public health measures and a plan to “build back better,” in part by retrofitting four million buildings in his first term and achieving carbon-free electricity by 2035.

4. Plan your memorable moment
Communicators spend a lot of time planning the messages we want people to remember and the media to quote. In political debates, the goal is usually differentiation from one’s opponent. Attacks that are negative but fair often work.

Trump had various themes to which he returned many times, including his own successes, allegations of electoral fraud, attacks on Biden’s son, and the suggestion that his opponent would be beholden to extremists and radicals. Only one line, however, came across as strategically planned: “I’ve done more in 47 months than you did in 47 years, Joe.”

Biden was prepared with many quotable messages. On the state of the nation: “Under this president, we’ve become weaker, sicker, more divided and more violent.” On the COVID-19 pandemic: “It is what it is because you are who you are.” On foreign policy: “He’s Putin’s puppy. He still refuses to even say anything to Putin about the bounty on the heads of American soldiers.” On trade: “[Trump] talks about the art of the deal; China’s perfected the art of the steal.”

The line that produced the most surprise was almost certainly unplanned. When called upon to denounce a white supremacist group, Trump asked them to “stand back and stand by.”

5. Be authentic – and even vulnerable — but stay in control
Even Americans who are displeased with their presidential candidates should concede that each comes across as highly authentic.

Trump’s supporters see him as spontaneous, while his critics see him as unprepared. Either way, there’s little doubt that the emotion is genuine, and that he is as he seems. Biden’s emotion came through honestly, too, most notably when thinking about his sons — citing his late elder son’s service in Iraq and, in response to Trump’s attacks, his younger son’s struggle with addiction. This made him more relatable, vulnerable, and human — qualities that often create connection between leaders and audiences.

The most authentic moment, however, emerged when Biden responded to Trump’s interruptions (and the moderator’s inability to control them) with five unplanned, succinct and slightly restrained words: ‘Will you shut up, man?’. Some viewed the line as rude; others saw it as responding in kind.

Every leader aims to capture the moment, in a way that aligns them with their audience. In this short phrase, Biden didn’t just spawn a meme; he captured the zeitgeist of a country weary of its politics – for a moment, at least.

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