A fascinating thing has occurred among the Democratic candidates. It's a kind of gender role reversal in communication style. Contrary to decades of research, the male Democratic presidential candidates sound more equivocal than the woman.
As a rule, women use more aligning actions (gestures and phrases softening their comments) and disclaimers ("I don't want to sound annoyed, but...") and often pay for it in promotions to leadership positions. But in the debate last night, Barack Obama used the term "I think" repeatedly. While this shouldn't be completely excluded from anyone's speech, more often than not it weakens subsequent assertions. The question arises in audience member's minds: Do you just think it or do you know it?
Obama was supposed to differentiate himself from Clinton yesterday. And in substance he did. In his delivery of that substance, he did not.
Barack Obama's problem is not that he is weak, inexperienced, or simply not ready to be president. It is that he hasn't persuasively eradicated those perceptions. He tends to give speeches rather than relate to voters at the podium. The distinction is critical. He needs to attend to the way he talks so that what he has to say is heard and, importantly, remembered.
Christopher Dodd has been improving his communication. On Meet The Press last Sunday when Tim Russert repeatedly reduced journalism to "but you said something different in 2002" and played "gotcha" again last night during the debate, Dodd's answers were largely crisp, direct, strong, and supported. Joe Biden has been much more on-target, forthright and even witty lately as well, reducing his tendency to wander and undermine his credibility. He isn't running against Clinton, he assured us, but for the presidency. And he says that as if he means it. Their primary problem -- these improvements have come late.
Kucinich has a magnetism problem. He is assured, but Clinton sounds so too and has grabbed far more attention by being interesting and occasionally violating expectations -- gender ones included -- another aspect of memorable persuasion, especially for women. Kucinich looks at the questioners, Hillary adeptly divides her time between them and the audience -- us. Few things would help Kucinich more that talking TO us. In fact, all but Clinton could do more of this.
Edwards and Obama often include too much information in a response. Clinton is more clear -- in part by being concise. During a debate, she doesn't risk the let-me-tell-you-a-story preference of Richardson. It's too long-winded and worse, meandering -- a trait, ironically, attributed more often to women.
Edwards warmed up to clarity and forcefulness in the debate but he needed to do so earlier. He needs to waste less time, for example, telling us he isn't perfect and tell us why she isn't. And it would help to stop sounding like he's giving a speech. He and Obama have this problem. JFK was able to do that but times have changed and he was a master of style balance.
Edward's list of Hillary's corporate sponsors is persuasive support for limitations on her ability to make substantial changes. But again his delivery of this criticism did not make the most of it. He needs to drive home such promising criticisms -- conduct triage on his key points.
Should the presidency be determined by who sounds like a leader? Of course not. But when people are struggling for cues, candidates need to deliver. Hillary is doing that. She's shown compassion and concern in other venues and uses debates to show she has the "right stuff" to be president. She knows context dictates persuasive style.
She was getting a bit ruffled later in the debate, especially with Russert, smirking even at times, which shows she can be provoked and perturbed. And that side of her doesn't sell well.
If Barack Obama and John Edwards are to gain ground against Clinton, they'll need to drop the "I think" and Well-let's-look-at-it-this-way, long-winded, nearly monotonic style, increase the passion in their comments when they feel strongly about issues, use phrases that draw attention to those views (e.g., "Now this is key" and "Remember this"), answer succinctly, look at us without appearing practiced, and pay more attention to delivering their own message than to intercepting hers. If they don't, and Hillary for some reason falls in the ratings, it's beginning to look like they might have Chris Dodd or Joe Biden to deal with as those two are on a roll.