THE BLOG
07/03/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Eyes on the Candidates: A Few Modest Suggestions

Media trainers are those people who help prepare executives, authors, celebrities and politicians when talking with the media. They look at the two presidential candidates with a trained eye on the little things that matter, not just the ten-point plans to save the world, or the soundbite-of-the-day. It's things like a thumbs up fist-bump, a smile, a tilt of the head, the way a person moves, the WAY a candidate talks, which is often more important than WHAT he talks. It's what Fats Waller says, "Ain't What You Do, It's the Way That You Do It."

Research from Stanford shows that 93% of what an audience gets off a speaker is the speaker him, or her, self, leaving only 7% for their wonderfully crafted words. 93% is the sale. Smart is good. We expect smart from our presidential candidates. But smart alone doesn't do it. Ask Al Gore and John Kerry. The sale is ultimately made, or denied, on that indefinable emotional Velcro that's created between candidate and voter. It's what Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes saw in Franklin Roosevelt, "Second class mind but a first-class temperament." Truman's plain speaking style, the embracing Eisenhower smile, Kennedy's self-effacing bantering with the media, Reagan's genial one-liners, Clinton's optimistic affect or Bush2's Barbeque Guy persona are some of the non-cognitive ingredients that audiences read as a person's demeanor -- the 93%.

Both Senators McCain or Obama are well schooled in communicating through the media. But you never stop learning and improving. With this in mind, imagine McCain and Obama are invited in for a little media refresher session. There are a few adjustments a skilled media coach might suggest to each. For example, gentlemen...

MCCAIN: the auto-smile. You do it just after you slam the other guy. Your face instantly defaults to a rictus-like smile that's quite scary. Drop it like a bad habit.

OBAMA: You tilt your head up when listening in a debate. Head-up reads like you're looking down your nose on people. 'Condescension' comes to mind. You do it a lot. Is it a vision thing? You wearing bi-focal contact lenses, or something? Adjust downward.

MCCAIN: We know you're fair skin means you have to guard against harmful sun rays -- but the hats and go-go sunglasses? You're bordering on Mr. Magoo, the old, oblivious cartoon guy. Not youthful or presidential. Aren't there effective sun-blocks you could use?

OBAMA: The "Uhhhs" and "Ya knows." You do the word crutch thing. It usually happens with lawyers, therapists, doctors and politicians who have difficulty mastering soundbites. They tend to like the complexity of things and want to explain it all to us. Like it or not, soundbites are like bells that call many to church. Their meaning goes beyond their exact words and conveys much larger ideas like FDR's "Fear of Fear," Reagan's "Morning in America," and your own "Audacity of Hope." You should work more on that.

MCCAIN: Overuse of your "my friends" phrase before and after everything. Rote. Not fresh. Very 1940s, which means old. Stay away from 'my fellow Americans' too. Another cliché when voters are looking for something different.

Just because the words candidates use account for only 7% of the sale, this doesn't mean they don't matter. The 93% and the 7% are symbiotic -- can't have one without the other. You can have a terrific 93% delivery, but if the words aren't there, the message won't have much Velcro to it. If you ever saw Marlon Brando in the movie The Island of Dr. Moreau, you understand. Great actor. Poor script. Box office dud. Conversely, you can have 7% of terrific words but the wrong 93% delivering them. If you ever saw Kevin Costner in Robin Hood, you get it. Classic tale. Hard to louse up unless the main guy isn't believable. So with that in mind, a media coach might say, "Gentlemen, here's some thoughts about the words you're using."

OBAMA: We understand your current key message is "McCain is McBush." Got it. Meanwhile, your surrogates are working the second key message, McCain's age. They're using words like "confused," "losing his bearings," "out-of-touch" a lot. Why don't you just come out and say "addled?" Never mind that heavy hitters like Warren Buffet, George Soros, Carl Icahn and Rupert Murdoch are McCain's age, or older. A lighter touch on the age thing might be helpful. Run a lot of video with you playing basketball. Works well against the Magoo image. And don't worry about basketball being too black. You're way beyond that because you're basically seen as race-neutral like Tiger Woods, Denzel Washington, Bill Cosby, Morgan Freeman or Will Smith.

MCCAIN: Your current key message is experience. And we acknowledge that repetition is important during a campaign. If you say it enough times, it's bound to stick. But five more months of it and repetition becomes annoyance. Occasionally, you might float other words like "knowledgeable," "seasoned," "know-how," and "wisdom." You could also put more spotlight on your war time command experience in the military.

And finally, let's talk Teleprompter. Senator McCain, with more money coming in, you now use three prompters, compared to Obama's two. Reading off a script and making it meaningful is challenging. Three prompters only makes it three times worse for you. You sound like you're in the 4th grade, reading out-loud to the class.

Senator, you're going up against a guy who's got the prompter-reading thing down. You got two possibilities here: the Jefferson Option and the Navy Option. The Jefferson Option means "less is more." The writer of the Declaration of Independence was not at all comfortable giving speeches. In his eight years as President, Jefferson delivered only two, and only because they were mandated inaugural speeches. You, Senator, could pull the whole speechifying thing way back and do the town hall format that suits you best.

You also could combine that with The Navy Option, which is: do what you did when you learned to fly airplanes: practice, practice, and more practice reading speeches. It works. But please don't give any more speeches in front of vivid green backgrounds. You're running for President, not County Clerk.

Thanks for coming in, gentlemen. Hope this help.