Q & A: WKU debate coach looks at candidate’s speaking skills before debate


Last night, President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney faced off in the first national presidential debate. While policy analysis is ever-present in society, there has been little said about the actual speaking style of the two candidates.

WKU debate coach Chris Joffrion analyzed for the College Heights Herald the more technical aspects of the two candidates, most of which go largely unnoticed by the public.

College Heights Herald: Which candidate has shown the best presentation in speaking style so far in the race?

Chris Joffrion: In terms of pure speaking style and presentation skills, I think it is safe to say both candidates are highly skilled speakers. They, undoubtedly, both have a team of professionals coaching them on their delivery.

In fact, I would go so far as to say in terms of presentation skills Obama and Romney are two of the best we have seen in years. The only difference I have noticed between the candidates is in the area of energy, passion, and charisma.

In that regard, I think President Obama is outperforming the challenger, Mitt Romney. This should come as no surprise to anyone, no matter your political affiliation. Since his debut on the national stage at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama has demonstrated a knack for impassioned, energetic speaking. The difference in speaking styles may be attributed to the difference in candidates’ backgrounds.

CHH: Which candidate is “winning” in arguments and refuting their opposition?

Joffrion: This is a difficult question to answer for a number of reasons. The candidates have yet to truly debate one another. So determining which candidate is “winning” in arguments and refutation would require an evaluation of the nominees’ acceptance speeches at their respective conventions or the general campaign rhetoric visa via campaign ads on television and other media outlets, and I don’t think either of these makes a particularly fruitful locus for investigating the argumentative skills of the candidates. 

The convention speeches are designed to rally the base, individuals already largely committed to their party’s nominee. These speeches are not written to persuade or convert the undecided voter.


What do you think the candidates should do to appeal to voters in their speaking style and content with this debate? What are some common flaws the candidates need to avoid in order to do well (either in speaking style or refutation/explanation)?

Joffrion: In answering these last two questions, I am going to assume that I had the honor of spending a few hours with each candidate prior to tonight’s debate. What advice would I give them? How would I prepare them for the challenge ahead? Let start with the incumbent, President Obama. 

I would begin by reminding the president that he is ahead in the polls. He currently occupies the Oval Office. He flies aboard Air Force One. He is the President of the United States of America. This is his debate and his race to loss. This means he comes into tonight’s debate in control. He has to maintain that control throughout the debate and the remainder of the campaign. Fortunately, for Obama, I don’t think this will be a problem. One of his greatest strengths in the 2008 debates, and frankly as president, has been his poise.

Second, I would tell the president that this election is not Obama vs Romney. This election is Obama vs the image of Obama painted by Romney and the GOP. I would tell the president directly, “this election is a referendum on you and your policies.”

“Mr, President,” I would say, “you are ahead in almost everyone of these battleground states. The DNC convention won you a larger convention bump that Romney got out of his convention.

The undecided voters who will decide this election are starting to lean toward you. Tonight, you must continue to make headway and progress with this small segment of the electorate.”

Now, the real question is how does Obama accomplish this objective? I think the trick is to master what Graham called the “backward-step-pivot-forward.” This is where a candidate successfully defends his position, or in Obama’s case his record and his image (the backward-step), and then takes a perceived or potential political weakness and turns it into a strength (the pivot-forward).

Remember though, it’s all about the economy. Obama must find a way to convince Americans that we are better off then we were four years ago.

CHH: Now, what do I tell the challenger?

Joffrion:Well, here’s my advice to Romney.

For Mr. Romney I would begin by reminding him of his experience and success. Romney emerged from a highly contested and brutal Republican primary cycle that included no less than two dozen debates, and Romney participated in almost every one of them.

Obama has not debated in almost four years. Now, this could be insignificant if Romney had not regularly bested the field of fellow GOP hopefuls through most of the primaries.

In particular I would remind Romney of his stunning success in a debate one week before the Florida primary, a debate that many analysts contend resurrected the Romney campaign stalling Newt Gingrich’s southern advance. In terms of debate, Romney is battle tested and has regularly proven he has what it takes to take on any number of challengers successfully.

The president on the other hand is out of practice and probably a little rusty. To emerge as the victor from tonight’s debate Romney must exploit this advantage, but how? Easy, he has to keep the pressure on the president.

Well, perhaps easier said than done but not impossible. Romney needs to aggressively confront the president with the facts. Facts that Obama — short of deploying Jedi mind tricks — will have a difficult time explaining away. Romney’s best shot at winning the debate comes with putting the president on the defensive.

As Timothy Stanley puts it (in a) CNN piece early today,”seeing the Democratic Cicero even slightly shaken by the Republican challenger could cause the public to rethink the way they conceptualize both men.” After all, one of Obama’s strengths going into this debate is that he is ahead in the polls which should grant him the ability to dictate the pace, style and focus of tonight’s contest.

If Romney can find away to crack Obama’s usually strong poise then he will go along way to improving his chances for a victory tonight and in November. 

What facts should Romney focus on? The national debt has now ballooned to over $16 trillion dollars with more a quarter of the debt, or roughly $5 trillion, being added over the past 4 years under Obama’s stewardship.  Unemployment is stuck above 8 percent, and that number might even be deceptively low as a countless number of American’s have given up hope of finding a job and are no longer counted among the unemployed. Romney should press Obama hard on his claim that more than 4.5 million jobs have been added during his tenure.

Stick him with the facts, Mitt. CNN has fact checked that claim, and it appears Obama is doing some fuzzy math here. CNN found an overall net increase of just 300,000 non-farm payroll jobs since Obama took office, and if you include government jobs in the equation the numbers are even worse for the president with an overall net loss of 400,000 jobs since January 2009. Again, “it’s the economy, stupid.” And Romney’s story needs to be we are NOT better of than we were four years ago. 

But merely weighing down the president with inconvenient truths alone will likely be insufficient to improve Romney’s political stock. Many American’s view Romney as out of touch, an elite super wealthy venture capitalist who doesn’t understand the life of an average American.

Cracking the “Democratic Cicero” may cause some voters to question their concept of President Obama, but Romney must also find a way to make voters question their concept of him.

If Americans continue to view him as the Republic version of John Kerry he will likely meet a similar fate. This is possibly the most difficult task facing either candidate in tonight’s debate and the remainder of the election in general. Tailoring one’s debate tactics and strategies to the needs of your campaign is fairly simple and straight forward, but altering your personality or the perception of your personality is far more difficult. For all his skill as a speaker and debate, Romney frequently comes off too polished, too practiced.

To put it blunt, Romney can seem fake. Romney has a tendency to do things that might intuitively make sense for someone trying to connect with an audience. The Romney smile, in my opinion, is deserving of its own trademark and almost befitting of a beauty queen. But this isn’t a beauty pageant.

It’s a presidential election, and that sort of stagecraft and pageantry is not playing well with the audience. More importantly, though, Romney speaks at the audience not to the audience. Many commentators have praised his smooth delivery especially when compared to Obama’s long pregnated pauses and vocal fillers, but this polish reads as pre-scripted and overly practiced. It’s not natural. Tonight Romney needs to be human, natural, and real. He needs to converse with the audience and connect with them. 

Editor’s note:  Come back tomorrow for Joffrion’s analysis of how the debate went, as well as WKU debater Becky Hall.