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Body Language in the Vice Presidential Debate

Did Gender Differences Play a Role? Experts Weight In
By Sherry Rauh
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Oct. 3, 2008 -- When nominees Sarah Palin and Joe Biden faced off in the only vice presidential debate, voters had a crucial question on their minds: Can I picture this person "a heartbeat away?" The answer may depend as much on body language and speech patterns as on what the candidates said.

WebMD consulted with speech and body language professionals to create a Debate Scorecard, taking into account message, voice, and nonverbal cues, such as posture and gestures. We then asked the same experts to use the scorecard in the vice presidential debate. The experts, who are not affiliated with either presidential campaign, are:

  • Debate Coach - Kellie Roberts, head coach of the University of Florida's Speech and Debate Team.
  • Media Coach - Tim Koegel, author of The Exceptional Presenter.
  • Executive Coach - Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, author of The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work.

Body Language and Gender

Body language in the vice presidential debate may hold special interest because of the match-up between a man and a woman. A candidate's gender can affect how viewers interpret specific gestures or facial expressions, Goman tells WebMD. "Gender differences always play a role in how you're filtering [a message], just as height and skin color ... and all of the appearance issues are paramount."

But Koegel says gender differences have little impact. "If someone's communicating at an exceptional level, it doesn't matter," he tells WebMD. "People just notice that the message is clear."

The key for both men and women, Goman says, is that a candidate's body language must be congruent with his or her message. With that ideal in mind, WebMD asked all three experts to share their scores for the vice presidential debate.

Vice Presidential Debate Scorecard

After watching the vice presidential debate, the experts gave each candidate a score of 1 to 5 in the following categories, with 5 representing the best performance.

1. Message: Did the candidates get their messages across clearly and concisely?



Palin - 4

Biden - 5



Palin - 4

Biden - 4



Palin - 5

Biden - 5



Palin - 4.3

Biden- 4.6


"Palin did a better job than in any venue we've seen her yet," Roberts tells WebMD. "Especially on the very first answer, holy mackerel, she came out strong and confident and so sure of herself." But Roberts gives Biden the edge, because he effectively used repetition to strengthen his message of the "fundamental differences" between the two tickets.

Goman says both candidates did an exceptional job of getting their messages across. Palin wanted to talk about her record and be identified with Main Street America. "Everything she did, from her body language to her stories to the way she answered questions, drove into that message." Biden wanted to equate John McCain with "another 4 years of the last 8 years ... and he did that very well."

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