Preparing for The Great Debate on September 26th: A Case Study in the Physicality of Audience Engagement

“At the conclusion of our post-mortem, I recognized the basic mistake I had made. I had concentrated on substance and not enough on appearance. I should have remembered that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’”

-President Richard M. Nixon, Six Crises

As the United States transitions from the presidential primaries to the general election, the country now eagerly awaits the presidential debates between the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, and Democratic nominee, Hillary Rodham Clinton, to begin. Presidential debates have become a staple of our election cycle, and regardless of political affiliations, we can all agree that with these two candidates the debates will certainly be entertaining, if nothing else. The first of the three scheduled presidential debates is set to occur on Monday, September 26th at Hofstra University, which gives each of the candidates more than a month to prepare for the match up.

But how will each candidate prepare for this debate? Will they memorize talking points and 10-word answers? Will campaign staff be breaking down stump speeches and preparing strong rebuttals and witty retorts? Will the candidate go through mock debates with campaign advisors? Will they work on how to position themselves on camera? How to modulate their voice? How to make-eye contact and gesture at appropriate moments?

shutterstock_459439108Presidential candidates have quickly learned the importance of appearing calm, cool, and collected when they step up to the podium for these televised debates. Many candidates spend a great deal of time and energy learning how to engage with the cameras and the audience effectively to appear “presidential” in stature and demonstrate their leadership abilities in these debates. And the reason for this is that presidential hopefuls have learned from the failures and successes of the first presidential candidates who participated in a televised debate on another September 26 — 56 years ago.

On September 26, 1960, Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon ascended the stage in Chicago, where they would make history as the first ever presidential candidates to appear in a televised debate. This first debate was one of four, known as The Great Debates, which aired on multiple networks for tens of millions of Americans to watch from the comfort of their homes. The legend of this debate has now reached mythic proportions as every poli-sci student inevitably learns about how this television appearance seemingly changed the nature of presidential elections.

Kennedy-Nixon 1

The reality of the debate though does not quite live up to its mythic status. During the debate, both Nixon and Kennedy soundly spoke about their views on domestic issues facing the US at the time. There was not nearly the same back-biting drama that modern television audiences expect to see and hear when they watch political candidates face-off against each other. Nothing that either candidate said was particularly “newsworthy” as that term is understood today. It was a clear and concise discussion of policy.

Then again, what made this debate so legendary was never what was spoken, but how the candidates appeared on camera and how their appearance potentially changed the course of the election.

A little back story is in order: About a month prior to the election, Nixon injured his knee and, due to infection, was confined to Walter Reed Army Medical Center for two weeks. Upon his release, the Republican candidate wasted no time getting back on the campaign trail, which unfortunately led to Nixon becoming ill with a cold right before the debate.[i]

As Nixon and his team prepared on the day of the debate, his advisors were concerned that, under the bright lights of the television studio, he would need make-up to cover up his sickly pallor. However, Nixon refused, fearful that it would be reported that he needed makeup while his fellow candidate, who had just campaigned in California and was sporting a tan, did not. In the end, he agreed to use Lazy Shave powder to cover his five o’clock shadow, but it was not nearly enough to smooth over his appearance when the cameras started rolling.[ii]

When the debate began, the stark contrast between the two candidates appearances became clear. In the book Media in America: The Wilson Quarterly Reader, Revised Edition, Robert J. Donovan and Ray Scherer described this difference in detail. They wrote:

Nixon used poor judgment in wearing a gray suit against a gray backdrop. He did not stand out on television screens as sharply as Kennedy, who was handsomely dressed in a dark suit, blue shirt, and dark tie. Kennedy’s manner throughout the debate was serious. By contrast, Nixon smiled often and somewhat nervously. Perhaps because of his sore knee, he sat awkwardly when he was not speaking. His tendency to perspire under studio lights quickly became noticeable, and it caused a quarrel in the control booth during the debate. [Nixon’s advisor Ted] Rogers was shocked when, without warning, [CBS director Don] Hewitt called for a reaction shot that caught Nixon apparently off-guard. The shot showed Nixon wiping his brow and upperlip.[iii]

Part of my practice at Athene Strategies is to coach leaders as they prepare to appear on camera. The old adage is that ‘the camera adds 10 pounds,’ but in fact it is much more complicated than that. The nature of the camera is that things become distorted. Small movements, positions, body language becomes exaggerated through the camera lens, so leaders appearing on camera need to be prepared for those distortions and know how to use them to their advantage. When I train leaders on how to appear calm and confident on camera, I videotape them as they begin to deliver their prepared remarks and review how they appear on camera, and how to change behaviors that show nervousness rather than confidence and will cause audiences to disengage.

In my own assessment of the Kennedy-Nixon debate, Kennedy looked directly at the camera or at the moderators when speaking. While he might have touched the podium, he never leaned on it. His stance was firmly grounded, and he rarely if ever shifted. When he was not speaking, he appeared to be thoughtfully listening, remaining engaged throughout the preceding. He appeared confident and comfortable on camera.


Nixon, on the other hand, appeared the opposite of comfortable. He frequently shifted from one foot to the other, likely to relieve his aching knee. He leaned on the podium for support, rather than standing on his own two feet. When he spoke he smiled occasionally, but often not enough while speaking, which made him appear angry or hostile. When he wasn’t speaking, he looked either annoyed, uncomfortable, or unwell.


And there was a clear difference between how the candidates answered questions during the debate. Theodore H. White, the Pulitzer prize winning journalist, once said of the debate, “[Nixon] was debating with Mr. Kennedy as if a board of judges were scoring points; he rebutted and refuted, as he went…Nixon was addressing himself to Kennedy—but Kennedy was addressing himself to the audience that was the nation.”[iv]

All of Nixon’s appearance issues during the debate came at a cost to his candidacy. Those who listened to debate on the radio, judging the candidates on the words that were spoken, thought that Nixon was the victor. But those who watched the debate on television, judging the candidates not only on their words but also their appearance, viewed Kennedy as the clear winner.[v]

The 1996 presidential candidate Bob Doyle once remarked during an interview, “I was listening to [the debate] on the radio coming into Lincoln, Kansas, and I thought Nixon was doing a great job. Then I saw the TV clips the next morning, and he…didn’t look well. Kennedy was young and articulate, and…wiped him out.”[vi]

This was the shift that made this debate legendary. Since then, political candidates now not only need to worry about the content of their message and how that message would resonate with the American public, but also the physical aspects of audience engagement that would either make them look ‘presidential’ or the opposite. As Bruce DuMont, the national radio talk show host and president of the Museum of Broadcast Communications, states, “I don’t think it is overstating the fact that, on that date, politics and television changed forever. After the debate, it was not just what you said in a campaign that was important, but how you looked saying it.”

Reflecting on his first televised debate, Nixon recognized his mistake and wrote the quote that began this piece: “I had concentrated on substance and not enough on appearance. I should have remembered that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’”

Whenever a leader steps onstage to address an audience, 90% of what the leader is being judged on are the physical aspects of what they are saying—the body language the leader exudes and the quality of the leader’s voice. Only 10% of what a leader is judged on is what that person actually says. A key lesson in communication is to commit to learning how to engage with audiences effectively. And that means that leaders need to master the physical aspects of audience engagement, whether speaking on camera or with an audience in person.

On September 26, 1960, Nixon forgot this very important fact, and it cost him that night and for the rest of that election, which he ultimately lost. As the two current candidates for president prepare to take the debate stage on this September 26, both Clinton and Trump will need to not only remember their pre-written debate points, but also this important lesson in communication.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then let the picture these candidates create help, rather than hurt, their candidacy.


Here is the video of the historic debate between Kennedy and Nixon on September 26, 1960:

This blog is part of a series “Lessons in Communication from a Dancer,” which uses principles and skills of dance as a way to better understand the key principles of effective communication.

[i] Gomery, Douglas. Media in America: The Wilson Quarterly Reader, Revised Edition. Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center, 1998: 105.

[ii] Gomery: 105-106.

[iii] Gomery: 106.

[iv] Gomery: 106.

[v] Staff. "September 26, 1960: Kennedy and Nixon Square Off In a Televised Presidential Debate." A&E Television Networks, 2009. Web. <>.

[vi] Botelho, Greg. "JFK, Nixon Usher in Marriage of TV, Politics." CNN. Cable News Network, 24 Sept. 2004. Web. <>.