Review: Lessons from the GOP Debates

Now that the endless mini series known as the GOP Debates is on hiatus, let’s look at the lessons its episodes offer.

For any of us who provide communication support to leaders, the debates remind us what to pursue and avoid. Regardless of our views, these not-always-ready-for-prime-time candidates can help as we coach our leaders.

Keep it simple. The best moments for the worst of candidates are when messages are simple enough to be remembered. No leader is at his or her best when defending a dissertation; every C-Suite has a trap door to the weeds. Leaders who dare to be simple cast a confident shadow over others because they grasp how much detail people can handle.

Be as real as possible. The best candidates, even at the worst of moments, remain approachable and likeable no matter if what they say makes any sense. We may never remember what some less-competitive candidates may have said during the campaign but how can we forget the friendliness of their smiles?

Occasionally frown. These debates are hardly natural events. But no person smiles as often, or as consistently, as the candidate who may have spent the past four years in rehearsal. No matter what is said during a debate, even of him, this would-be nominee maintains a half grin, as if listening and concentrating at the same time. While he works hard to look comfortable, any gesture or inflection loses its impact without variety. A leader who smiles should frown, now and then, so we can appreciate the difference that a smile makes.

Repeat within reason. We want to know the candidates but we aren’t taking tests about their lives. None of these hopefuls follow the ‘less is more” approach to provide enough to inform but not enough to bore. As these leaders go on and on, they rarely say all that much that is new. While a leader must carefully repeat to be remembered, unnecessary repetition encourages people to multi task.

Show respect. At times, in the final debate Wednesday evening, the candidates acted like kids in school, and not because they were sitting down. No leader benefits from getting ugly, sniping with sarcasm or calling other people names. While leaders should feel free to disagree, no one deserves to be criticized for having a differing opinion.

Listen before responding. We speak volumes when we listen, absorb and think. Spoken words do not have to fill every moment. Leaders who let us see the wheels turn give us confidence that words are heard. But leaders who scribble what to say in response may be saying the priority is to speak rather than listen.

Take time to get it right. Leaders may feel, when they speak and respond, they must speak quickly to be believed, as if they will score extra points for immediate answers. But people pay more attention to what they hear than how long they wait. Taking a moment to breathe can give a leader confidence before  he or she addresses questions.

Acknowledge mistakes. No leader is right all the time. Incorrect decisions happen. And when explaining what, in hindsight, was a wrong call, a leader should acknowledge it was a wrong call. No leader benefits from trying to hide behind too many facts. We should coach them to say what was incorrect, what lesson was learned, and how we have moved on. People are more willing to tolerate someone who is not afraid to admit a mistake than someone who claims never to have made one.

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