All eyes will be on presidential incumbent Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney during the televised debate Wednesday night – and viewers won’t just be paying attention to what comes out of the candidates’ mouths. Nonverbal communication will play just an important role in solidifying how viewers perceive each candidate, according to experts.
“The fact of matter is, a body will not lie,” said Sara Canuso, body language specialist and president of “A Suitable Solution,” a Philadelphia-based personal image firm. “We all project through our body language our inner thoughts and our inner actions, so you will find that it is very important. People will subconsciously look at that because we are all hardwired to form our first impression by viewing peoples’ image and body language.”
Canuso said those first impressions were shaped months ago on the campaign trail. “Before they speak a word, both of them already have very strong, powerful images,” she said. “Take, for example, when you view Obama and Romney, they’re always dressed beautifully. They’re tall and they carry themselves with grace and with character. They both have a very strong presence, so they already have made their first impressions.”
But first impressions can be a damning obstacle to overcome – both candidates have been roundly criticized as aloof and dispassionate, with Obama portrayed as an imperious intellectual and Romney as a distant one percent-er. “What they’ll be doing is more eye connecting,” Canuso predicted. “They’ll also be connecting with their voice – a more passionate, strong, compelling voice – and I think they’ll be using their hands more to connect. Hands are very strong connectors for pulling people into seeing things your way.”
She recommends that Obama focus on using a more commanding tone of voice and creating more variations in its pitch to convey both leadership and empathy. She said he should also crack more smiles than usual. “Smiling, though not too broadly, is critical to creating that likability factor,” she said. “When people like you, they will go out of their way to see things your way.”
She said that Romney, who faces additional pressure to “appear presidential” next to the incumbent, should connect with viewers by showing a wider variety of facial expressions and attempt to gain trust by keeping his posture straight and his eyes directly forward. “Standing up straight says, ‘I am solid, I am strong and I’m here for you,” she said.
At the same time, during a particularly contentious race that is still too close to call, both candidates will need to strike a balance, creating a perception that is empathetic without being hot-headed. “You’ll see a little emotion because they want to connect with people and show their human side,” Canuso said. “But if they are overly emotional, the public is going to question their ability to handle a real crisis. Let’s face it – people are looking for the country’s leader. We need someone who can understand us and sympathize with us, but we’re always looking for someone stronger than ourselves.”
Be sure to check back Wednesday night from 9 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., when Sara Canuso will weigh in on the candidates’ body language in real time during Metro’s live blog of the presidential debate.
When watching the debate Wednesday night, keep your eyes on each candidate’s:
– Hands. As Canuso said, hand gestures are a literal embodiment of connecting and drawing the viewer in. They also create the perception of openness. Broader, open-palmed gestures indicate confidence and honesty, while abruptly stopping hand movements or keeping the limbs tight to the body communicates anxiety and intimidation and may create the perception that a candidate has something to hide.
– Mouth. Biting the lip shows that a person is nervous, while frowning signals frustration. Grimacing shows annoyance, while smiling generates warmth, though smiling too broadly may undermine public confidence by creating a perception of unreliability. In all, trust is established through the display of a variety of facial expressions that change naturally as the candidate moves from one topic to the next and are in sync with their spoken message. Locking one’s face or completely repressing expression shows apprehension or stress and often appears disingenuous; so do expressions that are forced or rehearsed.
– Eyes. Looking down indicates that someone is ashamed or doesn’t believe in what they are saying. Looking up indicates that a person is searching for their next thought or, alternately, may be a display of disgust or disbelief, especially when combined with raised eyebrows. Darting eyes communicate a lack of confidence and fidelity. Keeping the eyes directly forward is the best way to communicate trustworthiness and empathy.
– Body. Fidgeting or swaying from side to side when standing shows that a person is uncomfortable and likely feels that they are not performing well. Hunching the shoulders or shrinking the body inwards communicates anxiety, self-criticism and defeat. Shrugging is a sign of uncertainty. Straight posture with relaxed but firm shoulders displays reliability and power.
– Suit. Canuso predicts that the candidates will wear dark suits due the event’s serious nature, but opt for charcoal or navy over black, which is associated with mourning. For a shirt, white signals a person is ready to do business, while blue is soothing and strongly tied with likability. Canuso said that blue is also a good choice for a tie, as is red, which stimulates brain activity. She also recommends stripes, which she said is a bold choice that shows confidence, presence and charisma.
Body language blunders
Some past presidential debates in which candidates have made memorable missteps include:
John F. Kennedy (D) v. Richard Nixon (R), 1960 – In the country’s first televised presidential debate, the heavily-favored Nixon was dealt a severe blow when he appeared onscreen recovering from a recent hospitalization. Nixon was pale, sweaty and dressed in an ill-fitting suit, giving him the image of a politician who was not wholly comfortable and possibly even untrustworthy, in stark contrast to Kennedy’s tan, fit and vital figure. Radio listeners were said to have thought that Nixon won the debate, while television viewers – an estimated 77 million of them – gave it to Kennedy, underscoring the importance of perception in a new age of visual media.
Jimmy Carter (D) v. Gerald Ford (R), 1976 – In an out-and-out factual blunder that many think may have turned the tide of a close election, Ford infamously claimed there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and never would be under the Ford administration.
George H. W. Bush (R) v. Michael Dukakis (D), 1988 – When the moderator asked Dukakis if he would want his wife’s killer to receive the death penalty, were she raped and murdered, Dukakis gave a calm, factual reply reasoning against the measure and outlining steps he took as governor to reduce violent crime. Many perceived him as cold and dispassionate, and his approval ratings dropped seven points that night.
George H. W. Bush (R) v. Bill Clinton (D) and Ross Perot (I), 1992 – In what many say was a defining moment in the race, Bush checked his watch and straightened his suit as the moderator during the second debate fielded an audience question about how the incumbent was personally affected by the recent recession. Bush then replied with a long, indirect answer. Observers claimed the gestures painted him as a bored, unsympathetic figure detached from the concerns of ordinary Americans and especially impatient with domestic issues, such as the economy.
George W. Bush (R) v. Al Gore (D), 2000 – During the candidates’ first debate, Gore repeatedly sighed, shook his head, sneered and rolled his eyes during Bush’s responses, pantomimes that were widely mocked on late-night comedy shows and portrayed Gore as rude and condescending.