How to Grade the Presidential Debates

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

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on September 25, 2008
From the WebMD Archives

As the presidential debates get under way, history suggests what the candidates say may not be as important as how they say it.

The first presidential debate to be televised took place in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. Reactions to this debate changed presidential politics forever, says Kellie Roberts, head coach of the University of Florida's Speech and Debate Team.

"People who listened on the radio thought Nixon won," Roberts tells WebMD. But those who watched on television declared Kennedy the winner. He had better posture and "looked presidential," she says. "People became more aware of the importance of how things look, and that has affected strategies in debates ever since."

The Impact of Presidential Debates

Debates rarely sway voters who have already made a tentative choice, says Larry J. Sabato, PhD, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "But sometimes," he tells WebMD, "if one candidate does particularly well or commits an embarrassing gaffe, a debate can tilt the undecided voters strongly in one direction. There is no question that the debates helped elect John Kennedy in 1960, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980, and Bill Clinton in 1992."

What is special about presidential debates, says executive coach Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is that they offer a chance to glimpse the candidates unscripted. In scripted speeches, "body language cues as well as rhetoric are honed by coaches," says Goman, who is the author of The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work. In debates, "people are much more vulnerable and their body cues are much more available."

The Role of Body Language

Ideally, debates "should be all about the content of the message," Roberts says. "However, research shows about 70% of our message comes from what we do nonverbally -- posture, the use of space, how we use our voice, how we gesture and use our bodies."

These signals provide emotional cues to back up verbal arguments, Goman tells WebMD. Whether you are a business executive promoting a vision for your company or a politician promoting a vision for your country, body language and rhetoric must be in sync. "If your words are saying, 'trust me,' but your body language is not, you've just derailed your message."

With that in mind, WebMD consulted with speech and body language experts to create a debate scorecard. Use it to determine which candidate you think communicates most effectively in each debate.

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.
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.

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.

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

4. Posture
Standing up tall with the head held high is essential for two reasons, says Goman, the body language expert. "It sends a positive message to the brain and gives you a psychological advantage. Also, you do look taller," which is an advantage in itself.

But there's more to posture than standing tall. "If you see someone standing with their legs a little apart, their arms loosely by their sides, those are gestures of being confident and relaxed," Goman says. Legs together and arms stiffly at the side send a signal that something is wrong.

[Editor's note: When scoring on this topic, a little context is necessary. Keep in mind that John McCain has limited mobility of his arms because of wounds he suffered as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.]

Leaning is also an important clue, Goman tells WebMD. People tend to lean toward questions they like and away from questions they don't like, so watch for any shifts.

Slouching or resting on the podium.
Standing with the legs together and arms stiffly at the sides.
Leaning away from the person asking the question.

5. Gestures
Gesturing is a natural way to enhance speech, Koegel tells WebMD. Candidates will use their hands more freely on topics they are comfortable with. When they feel nervous, they may keep the hands within an imaginary box in front of the torso.

"Most people have been reading body cues since the time they were born," Goman says. The candidates know this, so many of their gestures may be rehearsed. For example, placing the hands flat on the lectern or table, and arranging the fingertips into a steeple can help convey confidence in a particular point.

Goman suggests recording the debates and looking for "microgestures" -- smaller movements that give more authentic clues to the candidates' mindsets. In particular, she says touching the mouth or nose while speaking can suggest some type of deception.

Extra credit:
Open palm gestures, which signal authenticity.

Unnatural or stiff gestures.
Wild or over-the-top gestures.
Gripping the podium tightly.
Pointing or finger-wagging.
Touching the mouth or nose while speaking.

6. Facial Expressions
The face is one of the best places to read stress. According to Goman, a person's blink rate increases dramatically under stress. The mouth becomes dry, so watch for a candidate licking the lips. Biting the lip, on the other hand, suggests a person does not fully believe what he or she is saying.

To convey authenticity, candidates must remember to smile. "It's helpful to smile wherever appropriate," Koegel says. "A smile comes across as relaxed and comfortable." But the smile had better be sincere, Goman adds. "A real smile crinkles the eyes and has a warm feeling," while a fake smile makes people recoil.

Again, Goman suggests recording the debates and watching for "microexpressions." "Look for those tiny expressions of disgust or anger or fear -- it happens before the conscious mind can say that's not a good thing to do." Watch for these expressions not only in the candidate who is speaking, but also in the candidate who is listening.

Stoic face that reveals no emotion.
Inappropriate or fake smiling.
Poor eye contact.
Blinking more often than usual.
Scowling or rolling the eyes.
Licking or biting the lips.

Bonus Point
According to Goman, if one candidate walks over to his or her opponent's space to shake hands at the end of the debate, this is icing on the cake. The space-invading candidate has "taken control and put the other candidate at a disadvantage."

And the Winner Is?

Well, you of course will judge that, and preference will certainly weigh into it. Still, WebMD will check back with the experts the day after the first debate. We'll ask them to rate the candidates' performances in each of these categories.

Ready to start keeping score? Print our debate scorecard.

WebMD Health News



Museum of Broadcast Communications.

Kellie Roberts, director of forensics, University of Florida Speech and Debate Team; interim director, Dial Center of Written and Oral Communication.

Larry J. Sabato, PhD, director, University of Virginia's Center forPolitics; author, Divided States of America.

Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, executive coach and author, The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work.

Tim Koegel, media coach and author, The Exceptional Presenter.

© 2008 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.