What Presidential Candidates Can Teach Us About Communicating

The 2012 U.S. Presidential election is now – for better or worse – essentially a two-horse race, even though the presumptive nominees will not receive official designation for some time.  Let the race begin, and if you didn’t think the primaries were already bordering on reality TV, brace yourself for an onslaught of media exposure, or over-exposure of the men who aspire to lead the U.S. for the next four years.

It takes a special kind of guy to campaign for President.  The hours are horrendous, the food is terrible, and you’ve got news cameras – and flip cams — in your face 24/7.   It’s not a job for the faint of heart, and I’m not even talking about the economy, the war on terror or the White House Easter Egg Roll.  If you’re in it to win, you’ve got to be an outstanding communicator.  So, while we all settle in to consider who will be the next Commander in Chief of the U.S. — and wait for the inevitable HBO special that will neatly package it all as prime time drama — let’s take a moment to consider what the candidates – the most exposed of spokespeople – can teach us about communicating.

Hot Words and Phrases Live on In Infamy

The 2012 primary has already racked up an impressive lexicon of hot words, as have previous elections – “marvelous,” “guns and religion,” “Etch a Sketch,” “Change,” “Hope,” “Experience,” “You Betcha!”   Whether you’re a presidential candidate or the president of a Fortune 500, take the temperature of the language you use to make sure a single buzz word does not outlive the substance of your message.

Theatrics Alone Will Not Win a Debate

In the post-debate spin-room, each side will claim they won, but the real winner is the candidate who prepared.   Attack, Defend, Pivot, are all tried-and-true debate tactics, but the public wants content.  Debates are a platform to tell a story and speak directly to an important audience.   The high-brow arm wrestling between candidates is fun, but it won’t advance the campaign.

Comedy is For Comedians

The candidate who is tempted to tell a “humorous story” on the campaign trail, will likely find himself doing damage control the next day. There is nothing funny about politics, unless it’s a skit on “Saturday Night Live.”  Play it straight.

Slogans or Substance

The public has an uncanny knack for spotting the phony in the room.   While round-the-clock media does promote a sound bite mentality, no candidate should become a sound bite machine.  It sounds false.  The heightened exposure makes the repetition too easy to spot.   A substantive story can be told with a range of compelling and meaningful illustrations.

Don’t Be Such a Politician

We all tend to adopt the voice we think the public expects from us.   But the fact is the word “authentic” has now become so overused because the public is so desperately craving a human voice in politics, in business and every over-managed aspect of daily life.  Talk to the audience like they’re you’re neighbor, your grandmother, or your teenage son if you want your message to get through.

Tom Barritt is Partner and Managing Director of Ketchum’s Communications Training Network, a team of executive media coaches. He has helped executives shape stories that get noticed for nearly three decades.