Yesterday, the Vice Presidential candidates had their first, last and only debate televised.

I was fully expecting this to be a slugfest with lots of venom exchanged. By the time I picked up my six-pack and pizza, I had envisioned this debate to be a cross between a Rocky Balboa – Clubber Lang boxing match and a really bad marriage counseling session.

So when the debate began, I was heartened when the two candidates came out, shook hands and amidst the applause, Palin asked the question, “Can I call you Joe?” I decided to hold off on the beer part and just take in the election for a couple of reasons.

First, I usually cycle between four channels on these things: CNN, MSNBC, FOX, and CSPAN. But when I first tuned in, I hit CNN and noticed the “acceptance meter” at the bottom of the screen. I remembered that they had used this same technology in the first debate to get a read from a group of undecided voters down in Columbus, OH. CNN had segmented this focus group into men and women and you could watch the two lines track the candidates in real time. Since none of the other channels was using this kind of technology, I decided to let CNN ride.

Second, because of this real time technology, I figured this would be a great opportunity to tie in what the speakers were saying with how the audience was reacting. Typically, when we are standing in front of a group delivering a presentation, we have the advantage of watching the audience’s reaction to what we say and what we do. When our performance is broadcast over the airwaves, we don’t have that advantage and it’s unfortunate that the candidates didn’t have visibility into the “acceptance meter”. I’m sure they would have adjusted their performance if they did. But they didn’t have it, we did and it proved very informational.

Third, because of my past associations with Neuro Linguistic Programming and the speaking programs that we put on, I wanted to see the impact that certain kinds of activities from the candidates would have on the focus group.

As I said, it was a very informational night. Some of what I saw and heard last night is detailed below and I try to relate it to some of what we teach in our speaking classes and what was obtained from my studies of NLP. Thing to remember is that while this is a debate, it is also a sales presentation. The two candidates are out there standing side by side making one of the biggest sales pitches in their lives and they are selling an intangible product. If you are a sales person, when was the last time you had to make your sales presentation with your competition standing about 15 feet away from you ready to counter your every statement? That can be a rather humbling experience.

Anyway, here is a synopsis of what I saw last night.

Solutions vs. Problems

One of the first things that I noticed for both candidates was that when they talked about solutions and possible outcomes, the two lines went up. When they started talking about the bad news, the meters started heading south. When the finger pointing, blaming and attacking started, the meter took a nosedive. Lesson here, people are tired of the finger pointing and the blaming. They want to hear about solutions. And leaders talk about solutions and a vision for where they want to take their team. This is also a classic sales-presentation strategy. Talk about the current situation with your client and highlight the pieces that cause them severe dissatisfaction with where they are currently. After they feel the true ramifications of their current situation, talk about a future state where the problem has been solved and they are feeling pretty good. Then, help them bridge that gap by showing them how your solution can help them get from where they are feeling pretty bad to where they want to go and feel pretty good. Attacking and blaming, however, will probably get you ushered out the door sooner than you would like.

The Cushion

Both candidates made too few uses of cushions. A cushion is an unflavored method of acknowledging the other party. Both candidates were given opportunities to offer a rebuttal to the other’s statements and claims. I heard lots of,“that’s not true”. I heard some, “Can I address that”. And I even heard a “Yes, but”. A generic type of cushion to use in a situation like this would be something like, “I can appreciate your position” or “I can appreciate your views”, or “I can appreciate where you are coming from.” Both candidates did use this type of cushion in the debate. They could have used it a lot more. That “acceptance meter” lines could have shot up a lot faster if they had used these cushions instead of, “Yes, but…”

The next time you are in a sales situation and you client says, “You know, ABC company makes a 9.1 Gigawatt flux capacitor”, instead of reacting with, “Yes, but ours goes up to 10!” try saying, “I can appreciate that. What are you going to do with all that power?” You’ll keep them talking and their “acceptance meter” won’t tank.

Don’t Back Your Client Into A Corner

Another point that hit me. Refrain from being directly confrontational. One of the notable points of the debate was when Governor Palin commented that she may not answer the question the way Senator Biden or the moderator wanted, but she was going to talk directly to the American people. She not only challenged her competition at that point, but she also challenged the moderator. Now I’m sure that there was a blinking light somewhere that indicated when the speaker’s time was running low and when they had to stop. And I’m sure that the moderator, Gwen Ifill, was lenient in giving the speakers a few more seconds to wrap things up. But this exchange was the one and only time, during the entire 90 minutes, that I heard Gwen Ifill say; “Your time is up”.

This goes back to some of the basic human-relations principles, like not telling a person that they are wrong and allowing them to save face. Refrain from backing your client, or the moderator, into a corner where they have to attack in order to get out just to maintain their stature. You have ideas, they have ideas, and not everyone is going to agree on everything. However, we can, agree to disagree while maintaining respect for each other’s points of view. If you put your client in a position where they feel like they need to defend themselves or they need to reassert themselves, they will do so and nobody wins. You may win the fight, but you won’t win their respect or their hearts.

Vocal Tonality

Both candidates had times where they weren’t using the entire range of their voice, and they had times when they used vocal modulation to incite drama in their presentation. In instances when the candidates modulated their vocal tone, the “acceptance meter” went north indicating a favorable response. When their voice took on a harder tone, or when they spoke to quickly, the meter went flat. Lesson here is that there is more to your message than just the words. Use your voice to put some drama in your sales presentation and get your client’s acceptance meter heading north.

Meet Your People Where They Are

There were several times when Governor Palin just flat out said that she was going to talk about energy or taxes and not deal with the topic on the table. It shows feistiness, and if you try it in your sales presentation, your client will toss you out the door. There are ways to make the transition. But to just tell your client, or the moderator, that you want to go back to discuss the topic that you feel comfortable with is an indication of your lack of preparation and your inflexibility. A good strategy here would be for you to acknowledge the topic, or the objection, and then show how that affects the point that you REALLY want to discuss… and then you go off on a tear.

This is called pacing and leading. Start with where your client is, match their demeanor, attitude, physical stance, breathing… and only when you have rapport can you lead them to a different place.

Using Facial Expressions and Congruency

When you are sitting down in an interview, or you are in a televised debate, you have limited ability to move around. You have limited ability to move your hands and to move your body. In these instances, you need to use your facial expressions and your vocal tonality to relay your drama. I noticed a lot of this in Senator Biden. I never knew that the human forehead could have so many wrinkles. If you looked at his forehead and his eyes, you could see when the muscles around his eyes relaxed. You could see when his gaze softened when he spoke about his early challenges and the accident that claimed the life of his wife and child. You could tell when he was taking a hard stance on foreign policy by watching the tension in his face from the eyes up. It was very visible. And it displayed his congruency with his message. When you heard the tone matching what you saw it in his facial expressions, you could see the acceptance meter going up

And speaking about facial expressions, smiling is key. For the most part, when both candidates smiled, the meter started going up. When both candidates had a more stern expression, the meter dropped. But there is a small caveat here about congruency.

If you are talking about bad news and you are smiling, your client will wonder if you are secretly reveling in their problem. Maintain congruency. Speak from your heart and you won’t have to worry if your physical responses are matching your verbal responses.

That’s all for now. Next debate will be between the two presidential candidates on October 7. We’ll see what tidbits we can glean from that event. I’ll be twittering as the debate happens. Send me your twitter responses and let me know what you see.