Rules of the presidential debate: five things you should never say in a debate, rhetoric experts say


The first presidential debate in the 2020 U.S. elections is in a few days. The debate will be the first chance for U.S. voters to see Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden test their records and policies face to face before voting in November.

Winning a debate is more than a feather in a candidate’s hat. A candidate’s performance in debate – even during general elections – can deflate a candidate’s base or prompt donors to open their wallets.

Political candidates – especially during the primaries – will spend weeks preparing for confrontations with their rivals, often using mock debates and rigorous drills to revisit their talking points.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden have played down their preparations, or at least that’s what they’re telling reporters.

The president recently told reporters he was preparing for the debate by “doing what I do,” and Mr Biden said he planned to start preparations for the debate in earnest five days before the event.

Winning the debate seems simple; whoever has a better grasp of their talking points and who looks and sounds more presidential will likely be considered the winner. But knowing what to do on stage is just as important as knowing what not to do.

The Independent spoke to debate and rhetoric experts to better understand all the pitfalls candidates must avoid if they hope to emerge victorious from the debates.

5. Don’t exceed your time

Southern Illinois University Debates Director Dr Todd Graham, known to some as “America’s Debates Coach,” has been named National Debates Coach of the Year three times and has judged over 8 000 debates. He regularly writes columns analyzing the debates of the primaries and presidential campaigns during the electoral years.

One of Dr. Graham’s tips for debaters is to avoid speaking beyond a given time limit on a question.

While some may think that breaking the rules and demanding to be heard is a way of showing dominance, aggression and an unyielding spirit, Dr Graham says it actually does more harm than harm. Good.

“You don’t want to work overtime. So many times if you overshoot, you’ll work that crescendo, work toward an important point at the end of your post, but you find that moderators interrupt you frequently to tell you your time is up. Dr Graham said. “Not only can this deflate your momentum, but even if you finish, the audience might not hear your take on the moderator who interrupted you.”

At the same time, Dr Graham warned that while a candidate shouldn’t speak for too long, they should also practice to make sure they don’t finish their sentence halfway through a point.

4. Do not project uncertainty or weakness

Although it goes without saying, a candidate must appear strong if he hopes to emerge victorious from a debate.

Dr Tammy Vigil, associate professor of communications at Boston University and author of books on presidential debates and rhetoric, said that candidates with poor posture, shining eyes and who use verbal filler worlds like ” uhm “and” uh “tend to project weakness in their audience.

Candidates should also appear engaged in the debate and aware of every action they take, lest they inadvertently telegraph something to the audience that they did not intend.

During a 1992 presidential debate between incumbent President George HW Bush and his rivals Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, Mr. Bush checked his watch as a town hall participant asked him about the impact of the recession on him personally.

The gesture – intentional or not – made Mr. Bush appear out of touch and cold to an American population seeking relief.

“The little moments in races can become memorable and can stimulate a base in one way or another,” said Dr. Vigil. “When George HW Bush checked his watch it drew criticism; people asked ‘Oh, did he spend bedtime’ because he was older than his rivals, or they implied he wasn’t interested in what was being discussed . ”

She said even small moments can completely disrupt a candidate’s momentum.

3. Don’t get carried away by the message

According to Dr Vigil, some critics of modern presidential debates claim that the events are not debates at all, but rather dueling press conferences for the candidates. This bit of criticism is rooted in a common advice given to politicians when learning to deal with the media; answer the question you would have liked to have been asked.

In other words, politicians tend to dodge and dodge tough questions by trying to reframe the inquiry and answer it in a way that advances their own agenda or talking points. While they can be an effective way to deflect a journalist’s question, it does not give rise to a convincing debate.

Because being on the defensive can make a candidate appear weak, they are trained to stay on topic.

“Looking assertive is good, but looking defensive is bad,” said Dr Vigil. “In this upcoming debate between Trump and Biden, Biden needs to be careful not to be baited by Trump to look silly or look defensive or combative.”

Passing a message or chasing tangents can be particularly damaging in the debates ahead, as both candidates are well over 70 and both have accused the other of having waning mental acuity.

“If I coached Trump, I would tell him to stay away from the topic,” Dr. Vigil said. “He has a tendency to pass the conscience on to people and that’s something he should avoid doing. He complained that Biden may not have been mentally all there, but then he provides the proof. that he has the same problem when he can’t stick to one topic. ”

2. Don’t play against your image

When a candidate runs for president, he does not present himself only as an individual, he presents himself as the symbolic representation of a political ideology.

Mr. Trump doesn’t just present himself as Donald Trump; he presents himself as president of law and order. As a guy who will cut taxes and bring the economy back through sheer willpower and business acumen. There is pure, unfiltered resentment made flesh. This is the guy who will tell the Liberals, Antifa, Anarchists and Black Lives Matter where they can push him.

Likewise, Mr. Biden doesn’t just introduce himself as Joe Biden. He runs like the guy who understands loss. He understands the pain. He’s good and decent and he’s going to clean up the dirt from the last four years of the Oval Office. He will restore decency in the United States.

The contestants built these larger-than-life characters to sell themselves to the public. As a result, they must maintain these images lest they undermine their base of support.

“I used to say that if I coached a Democratic candidate on how to debate Trump, I would tell him to insult him,” Dr Graham said. “However, once Biden won the nomination I got it back because he says, ‘I have empathy, I’m a nice person.’ So now he can’t get angry or swear anymore. . ”

He suggested that Mr. Biden stick to humor to win over the crowd, and quote Mr. Trump’s words – as well as the criticisms of others about him – in return.

Dr Graham suggested that Mr Trump would do well to rely on his own humor and focus on his pre-coronavirus achievements, if he wants a strong performance.

1. Don’t lose control of the room

The fastest way to appear weak in a debate is to lose control of the room.

A confident and well-prepared candidate can answer a difficult or combative question by losing control of the debate scene. If they haven’t done the prep work, debaters may find themselves scrambling to answer a question or deflect a review without sounding stupid.

Dr Graham believes Mr Trump will do his best to try to anger Mr Biden during the debate in a bid to portray the former vice president as a confused and frustrated old man.

“Trump is good at triggering people, and he’ll have a lot of tricks to trigger Biden. Biden has a hard time controlling his anger once it comes out. It goes until when he was vice president and he was arguing about Paul Ryan. Once he loses his temper he doesn’t know how to control it and he ends up screaming constantly, “Graham said. “If he lets Trump take over, he will have several bad debates.”

He said candidates who want to appear in control should first practice until they have a full understanding of their talking points. Second, their attitude must telegraph confidence, control and assertiveness without crossing the line of arrogance, intimidation and aggression.

“It’s all about attitude. Attitude is what wins the debate, often even for coaches and experts,” said Dr Graham. “You want to have a great attitude, but if you are arrogant or rude, that will be a turning point. There are subtle ways to do it all. Just about anything in a debate can be good or bad depending on how you do it. this.”


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