Politics and Debate Performance: What to do in a crowded field

What do you do when you are one of twelve panel members given just one minute to answer questions in an hour and a half political debate? Which sound bites do you perfect? How do you deliver with just the right amount of information so when you do get the spotlight you perform well? These were the challenges twelve candidates running for the recently redrawn 2nd Congressional District of California faced at a debate held at Dominican University in San Rafael, CA last week.

With such a large group, the debate organizers decided to forego classic debate structure in favor of a format where panelists were given one minute to answer each of four questions. There were no opening statements, but there were closing statements—also delivered in one minute. Unfortunately, the need for such rigid structure can kill not only the energy and effectiveness of a debate, but also the expectations of the audience. And I hate to say it, but that’s exactly what happened here.

So what can you do if you find yourself in this situation? As I watched each candidate use the allotted time, I jotted down a few notes. Here are some do’s and don’ts that stood out and are especially important to consider in such a tightly controlled debate.

Don’ts:

  • Don’t take too much time for chit chat. If you only have one minute you can’t afford the time to thank everyone in attendance, even though it’s a nice thing to do. Instead, get right to the point.
  • Don’t use fillers such as um, uh, etc. They take up too much time and make you look inexperienced, less organized, and less in control.
  • Don’t yell at the audience. Strong volume and heightened inflection are great skills to employ when you want to show your passion and commitment, but if you go over the top you will alienate your audience.
  • Don’t end your sentences on a high pitch as if you were asking a question. It makes you sound lightweight and unconvincing.
  • Don’t read your answers. This is a very boring strategy for the audience to endure, especially in an already boring format.
  • Don’t use too many “I” examples. Keep in mind the power of the word “you,” especially since you are trying to win the hearts and minds of voters.

Do’s:

  • Do identify your top priorities, and then plan and organize your message points.
  • Do practice the answers to the questions you are most likely to receive—and use a stopwatch.
  • Do start with a shocking statistic. It’s effective and you will stand out.
  • Do be smooth, articulate, and sophisticated. Tick off your three key points with precision. Add a personal example for a nice warm touch.
  • Do be original rather than just repeat what everyone else has said. Differentiate your message by your experience, philosophy, values, and record.
  • Do plan “spontaneous moments” like a comedian plans a monologue. If you have a few quips planned you can deliver them when the moment arises.

Just for fun, here are a few answers candidates gave to the question, “What sets you apart from others on the panel?” Keep in mind this is Northern California!

  • “What sets me aside is …”
  • I’m a marriage and family therapist. Our government is corrupt. The 1% is addicted and the 99% are enablers. I’m the only one who will go to congress and call this out.”
  • “Where I come from cannabis is a billion dollar economy. Let’s legalize cannabis and build the Emerald City.”
  • “I represent the hopeless because I’m hopeless and my campaign is hopeless.”

Even though I was entertained by such comments, in the end it was a boring night. I left feeling that the speakers were not eloquent or exciting enough to overcome the tight structure. The audience expected passion, action and even controversy. Unfortunately, there was no way around the monotony of this strict “debate” structure.

After each question, the moderator said, “You know the drill.” And we did. We were counting sheep, moving our attention hypnotically from one speaker to the next until it lulled us to sleep. What would have made a difference in this debate? Coffee, vodka, cannabis? If this is the Emerald City, then please lead me back to the Yellow Brick Road so I can get back to Kansas!