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How To Win An Election

Last week I was working with a client in Washington DC. The election campaign is in full swing and people asked what I thought of the communication styles of the leaders, so I would like to share with you the new article I have written for the Huffington Post.

How To Win An Election

With less than a year to the Presidential election in the US, the field is starting to narrow and the campaigns are getting stronger. So who can stand out in the wide field, pull ahead in the upcoming debates and win the nomination?

The right candidate needs the magic combination of ‘good on paper, good on screen’. Many of them have one half of this but are lacking in the other. They will need both to have the best chance of winning.

For the Republicans, Jeb Bush started out as the front-runner, with a strong track record. As a governor of Florida, as well as having a brother and father who have been President, he clearly knows what the job requires and has the right type of experience for the job. He’s ‘good on paper’. Sadly, the past few months have shown that he is poor on screen. When he gestures it looks awkward and low status. He moves his arms by raising his shoulders, looking as if he is shrugging. He favours palms-up gestures that appear submissive. He also tends to lean his head to one side, lowering his visual status. The overall image is of a schoolboy asking for help. There are many factors that will have knocked his poll ratings, but every time he goes on screen they seem to sink lower. If he doesn’t make changes soon he could be out.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, started out being treated as a joke candidate. Many people believed that he would be out of the running in a couple of months. He is ‘bad on paper’ – he doesn’t have the political experience of other candidates, plus he seems to offend huge swathes of people every time he speaks, implying that Mexican immigrants are rapists and women who ask tough questions are menstruating. If any other candidate had made these statements they would have sunk. However, Trump kept rising in the polls with every TV appearance. He physically and vocally represents strength with every gesture and emphatic statement. Unlike Bush, he favours using palms-down gestures, showing dominance. He will frequently point and give a thumbs-up, all indicating assertiveness and command. The only time he uses a palms-up shrug like those of Bush, is when he is relinquishing any control for his statement, such as when he says “and some of them [Mexicans] may be good people…”. He also speaks in short, sharp sound bites that win applause from the audience. The challenge will come for Trump when people start to look for the match up of ‘good on paper, good on screen’. At that point any shortcomings on policy and political experience may de-rail his campaign.

Chris Christie and Rand Paul have been stuck in a rut, especially in their communication styles. Instead of appearing assertive they tend to sway back and forth from aggressive to passive, with short bursts of energy followed by softer statements. On camera this appears as a lack of strength and control, so despite their political achievements they are not making the right impact to the audiences watching at home.

Among the Democrats, we saw how Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb made little impact at the first debate. Webb appeared stiff, with very few facial expressions, and Chafee appeared visually soft, instead of having the precision and strength that we want from our leaders.

Bernie Sanders is visually captivating to watch, with a powerful voice to match. However, his gestures tend to sail high above his shoulders, indicating heightened emotion and a lack of control. He is compelling, yet may appear too wild in his behaviour to win the popular vote.

So, who is getting it right? On the Republican side, Marco Rubio often favours the ‘thread-the-needle’ gesture (made by placing your fore-finger and thumb together as if holding a thin thread), which was commonly used by Barack Obama when he was running for President. he stays within the tightly framed shots used by the studio cameras. Rubio manages to bring some energy to his voice, without being over-powering. Ben Carson favours the calmer voice that we associate with self-assurance, although he is too quiet at times. Both could be stronger to get a greater emotional response from the audience.

On the Democrat side, only Hillary Clinton has managed to cultivate a style that has strength and control. She lacks the charisma of Obama and can be too tense and uncomfortable when smiling, which diminishes her charm on-screen, but she is way above the other Democrat contenders on the symbolic appearance of leadership. She has suffered a huge dent in her appeal through the Benghazi inquiry and email scandal, both of which make people question if she is ‘good on paper’, but with those areas fading from discussion and many years of public service behind her, she may now have the right match of ‘good on paper, good on screen’ that any candidate needs to have the best chance to win an election.

Hundreds of factors will determine who wins in the end, but as a tribe we need to believe that the person in charge has what it takes to lead us. Many people will vote for the same party no matter what, while others will listen carefully to policies and vote accordingly. However, many more swing voters, who can determine the final failure or success, are looking for something else. After the last election in the UK a colleague of mine was in a London taxi and she asked the driver what he thought of the results. He said he didn’t understand politics, but he had voted for David Cameron. When she asked why, he said, “I just watched those TV debates and he was the one who looked most like a leader”.

Winning these votes requires great content and compelling delivery. With debate season in full swing, the next few months will give us plenty of opportunities to see who can give us both.

The main point is simply this – you can have a fantastic idea, the right experience and credibility for a project and yet you can still fail to win support if your communication style lets you down.

So how do you make sure you win the support, respect, sales and recognition that you deserve?

Firstly, think about the message you are delivering and the audience you are delivering it to. How do you want people to feel about that message?

Secondly, you need to decide how to vocally and visually represent your message. You are the billboard for that idea, product or process. If you are not going to bring it to life then you can simply email the idea. If you are in the room or on the phone you must physically embody the feeling of the message, in order to be a truly authentic and engaging communicator.

To learn more about how we can help you please contact our team.