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How to Grade the Presidential Debates

From body language to bluster, learn what to watch for when the candidates face off.
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Debate Scorecard

As you watch the first presidential debate, give each candidate a score of 1 to 5 in the following categories. Be sure to subtract a point if a candidate makes any of the moves listed as "deductions."

1. Message
Base your grade not on whether you agree with a candidate's message, but on how clear that message is. Tim Koegel, a media coach and author of the best-selling book The Exceptional Presenter, says brevity is essential. "The more concise, the better," he tells WebMD. "Candidates should have two or three key points for every topic -- three is the maximum [viewers] can remember."

Extra credit:
Illustrating key points with quick stories.
Deductions:
Long-winded or rambling answers.
Obvious gaffes, such as misstating a well-known fact.

2. Speech Pattern
"The beauty of great presentations and delivery is that everyone is different," Koegel says. Answers don't need to follow a specific pattern, but should sound unrehearsed. Rhythm and pacing should be natural, "like they're having a conversation."
Speech patterns also suggest how knowledgeable and confident a candidate is about any given topic. When someone takes longer than usual to respond or peppers an answer with "um" and "uh," he or she is probably uncomfortable with the subject matter. "The ums can affect undecided voters," Koegel tells WebMD.

Deductions:
Awkward pauses and filler, such as "ummm."

3. Tone of Voice

"Passion must come through," Koegel says, noting that passion tops the list of characteristics people use to describe effective speakers.

Roberts, the University of Florida debate coach, adds a caveat -- candidates should convey emotion, such as passion or anger, without going too far. She recalls democratic candidate Howard Dean's infamous battle cry during the 2004 primaries. "We're looking at [electing] the leader of the free world," Roberts says. "They have to stay in control."

Other pitfalls include a condescending tone or unusually high pitch, which suggests stress. "Watch for a rise in pitch at the end of a sentence," Koegel says. This makes a candidate's statement sound more like a question and undermines the point being made.

Deductions:
Monotone voice that expresses no passion.
Angry tone that comes off as a rant or bluster.
Rising pitch at the end of sentences.

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