Debate Takeaways Tallied Tactfully

Regardless of your personal opinion on the presidential debates, what can we learn from them about presentation and focus?

This article originally ran at Corporate Intelligence Radio.

I try hard in this blog to leave out my personal politics, which isn’t all that hard to do since I consider the topic of business innovation and its various threads to be about as nonpartisan a subject as there should be.  Business enterprise and creativity are as fundamental to a shared sense of values as I can imagine, and where we may often disagree on the “how” I hope we don’t much disagree on the “why.”  Together we create our economy, our opportunities, and our experiment in progress called democracy.  We argue as we should about issues of governance and legal particulars, but we should agree that following the law is our duty as much as evolving it with the times is our right.

What does all that have to do with the Presidential Debates?  While I was watching the first of them this week, I saw as I often do a collection of ideas that can be applied to our business thinking, in complete abstraction of the of the candidates, what they said, or who won, if there is such a thing (anytime rigorous and important discussion is had in front of and with the people, the people win).  Presidential Debates are anything but ordinary, like the Olympics we have to wait four years for the next staging, but other than reinforcing what we already believe or possibly swaying a swing voter, there seems a deeper construct evidenced and worth exploring.

During the first debate one of my friends on Facebook likened it to a supercharged job interview, where the applicants were down to the final two, and given the stakes forced to faceoff in front of a panel consisting of more than 65 million of their prospective employers.  I liked that analogy a lot — I am not even sure it is an analogy — but I was thinking about the event a little differently.  For some reason, the debate struck me as the ultimate competitive sales call, where rather than entering a prospective client’s office before or after your potential competitor, you had to handle the sales call in tandem.  Many of us have been on more sales calls than we want to remember, but seldom have I heard people either leaving or entering the room thinking of the other guy as their opponent.  Perhaps that is more the case than we think — if that were going through our minds, we might approach the business pitch a little differently.

What stood out for me in the debate was the immense amount of time both candidates invested in preparation for the 90 minutes they spent together in the public eye.  That 90 minutes on the rarely shared dais probably felt like a lifetime to the candidates, or opponents, but once it was behind them, it probably felt like a millisecond.  I am sure the time leading up to the debate never felt excessive, as every precious moment invested in preparation was clearly a tradeoff borrowed from some other critical activity.  As they felt the pressure of the event nearing, those tradeoffs had to favor dedicated preparation pods over other pressing conflicts.  Preparation time is always discretionary, but imagine procrastinating too long when you know in heart and mind that preparation is everything.  Definitely reminds me of selling — if you aren’t prepared, you’re sunk, your client expects you to be prepared and has no reason to cut you any slack on a stumble.

Second to preparation, I was struck by its counterpart, the role of extemporaneous behavior, dancing in the moment, listening, reacting, evidencing spontaneity that reflected realtime analysis and response to the unexpected, to the extent anything said might be unexpected.  You can rehearse a speech or pitch perfectly, and both candidates did for multiple segments, but how do you handle the moment when someone says something you believe to be wrong, untrue, or unsupported?  I was wary going into the debate that both opponents had come with a quiver full of “zingers” to flick at the other, where I couldn’t imagine anything less dignified than a canned response played as in the moment.  Luckily we were spared that disrespect, and I take it as a lesson.  There is a huge difference between a heartfelt moment and a too cleverly scripted remark – no one wants to hear B material from an A level player.  The balance of preparation and live playtime is the heart of sales as it was the heart of the debate.  We can argue at will about who did it better, but in my mind I kept thinking how consistently hard this is to pull off, to balance preloaded preparation with inspired retort, the art of the pivot.

Holding the balance between preparation and extemporaneous response was the notion of authenticity.  Each word a candidates says adds to an outcome, and as we all have so often experienced, style is content.  Any debate coach or sales leader will tell you how you say something matters as much or more than what you say, and here again, you have to be careful at all moments under extreme pressure to keep your eyes on the prize.  The presentation layer matters, its visceral nature reflects passion and deliberation, that which people remember more than words.  Yet it can’t be an act, it has to be who you are.  Surely you can say what you want, anything you want, and you can say it any way you want, but ultimately your goal is not to win the debate, it is to win the Presidency.  Cut to the sales call; you need to make a good impression, often you think you need to say what the client wants to hear just to stay in the room, but after you leave the room those words and that style can haunt you.  Are you being consistent with what you said before and what you intend to do after?  Do people believe that is what you really mean?  That is the authenticity of your belief set, it underlies every moment you are on your feet, and it matters.

Only in high school are the trophies handed out after the tournament.  In most of life the true impact comes much later — which means that immediately following the debate is the regroup.  What went right, wrong, better or worse than expected, and how will that be factored into your next encounter.  High stakes exchanges often reward innovation and quick thinking, playing it safe is unlikely to impress, and taking the right risk at the right moment calculated on the spot can be what it takes to close the sale.  These candidates still have time to course correct or double down on their strides, and in the same way, an account is seldom awarded after an early high stakes encounter.  To internalize the impact of your efforts and incorporate that into a subsequent approach is to know you participated in the event rather than performed.  The real prize can still be up for grabs, which takes you back to the process, the cycle — preparation, extemporaneous interaction, authenticity, and strategic evaluation to reposition.

Landing an account of any size will never be the same as a Presidential Debate, but maybe with President Obama and Governor Romney at the podium fixed in your mind, your next high pressured sales call might be a tiny bit better.

Photo—Charlie Neibergall/AP

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About Ken Goldstein

Ken Goldstein most recently was Chairman & CEO of SHOP.COM. Previously he was Executive Vice President & Managing Director of Disney Online, and VP of Entertainment & Education for Broderbund Software. He currently advises start-ups and established companies on brands, creative talent, e-commerce, and digital media strategy. His first novel, This Is Rage, was recently published by The Story Plant. Ken is on the boards of Thrift Books LLC and Good Men Media, Inc.

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