Body Language in the Vice Presidential Debate

Did Gender Differences Play a Role? Experts Weight In

From the WebMD Archives

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?

Roberts:

Palin - 4

Biden - 5

Koegel:

Palin - 4

Biden - 4

Goman:

Palin - 5

Biden - 5

Average:

Palin - 4.3

Biden- 4.6

Continued

"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."

Koegel agrees that Biden and Palin were equally effective, but he says "hammering" McCain too often may have diluted Biden's message of where he himself stood on the issues.

2. Speech Pattern: Did the candidates sound conversational without awkward pauses?

Roberts:

Palin - 4

Biden - 5

Koegel:

Palin - 4

Biden - 4

Goman:

Palin - 5

Biden - 5

Average:

Palin - 4.3

Biden- 4.6

"They both sound conversational in totally different styles," Goman tells WebMD. "Palin's style says, 'I'm just like you.' Her colloquialisms, such as 'doggone-it,' were effective for that message." Biden's style, Goman says, sent a different message: "I'm knowledgeable and passionate. I'm not intimidating, but I'm vice presidential."

Koegel says Biden's style probably played very well with supporters of the Obama/Biden ticket. "I think Palin's style would have a better impact overall," he says, "because your average Joe six-pack" could relate.

Roberts gave Palin a point off for sounding too hesitant at times. "When she didn't feel secure about her answer, her voice got very hesitant and a little shaky. You did not hear that with Biden; [his speech] was calm, cool, and collected throughout the presentation."

3. Tone of Voice: Did the candidates sound confident but not arrogant or angry?

Roberts:

Palin - 5

Biden - 4

Koegel:

Palin - 3.5

Biden - 4

Goman:

Palin - 3.5

Biden - 4

Average:

Palin - 4

Biden- 4

Continued

According to Roberts, Palin struck an immediate, friendly tone of voice. "The first words out of her mouth were, 'Can I call you Joe?'" Biden's voice was also polite. Roberts says gender may have had an impact here -- Biden was careful not to sound like he was slamming or talking down to Palin.

At one point when he was talking about his children, Biden's voice broke. "Does it make him weak or does it make him real?" Roberts wonders. "The audience must decide."

Goman pointed out Palin's occasional tendency to raise her pitch at the end of a sentence, so it sounds more like a question. This cadence supports a message of "I'm just like you," but it could "get in the way of a sending a message about being vice presidential.'"

4. Posture: Did the candidates stand up straight with their heads held high?

Roberts:

Palin - 5

Biden - 5

Koegel:

Palin - 5

Biden - 5

Goman:

Palin - 3.5

Biden - 3.5

Average:

Palin - 4.5

Biden- 4.5

"They both shifted, looked down at notes, and raised their shoulders," Goman says. "They were both equally guilty of not holding that erect posture." On the positive, "their bodies oriented when they spoke and when they listened," showing respect for each other's point of view.

5. Gestures: Did the candidates use natural, fluid gestures?

Roberts:

Palin - 3

Biden - 4

Koegel:

Palin - 3

Biden - 4

Goman:

Palin - 4

Biden - 4

Average:

Palin - 3.3

Biden- 4

According to Koegel, Joe Biden wins this one. He had more movement than Sarah Palin. She was flailing her pen around," which could have been distracting.

Goman says both candidates were guilty of pointing with a pen. And Biden did more finger-pointing in general, a gesture that is typically not well received. Occasionally, Biden used an open-handed chop instead, which comes off as more polite. Biden also had a nice gesture when he discussed "reaching across the aisle," Goman says.

6. Facial Expressions: Did the candidates smile sincerely and make good eye contact?

Roberts:

Palin - 4

Biden - 4

Koegel:

Palin - 4

Biden - 3

Goman:

Palin - 3

Biden - 4.5

Average:

Palin - 3.7

Biden- 3.8

Continued

According to Roberts, "They had very good interactive eye contact with one another. They had fabulous eye contact with the camera as well." But, Roberts adds, Palin's winks and smiles were "a little over the top."

Goman also found the winks troubling. "She winked three times -- once when she was talking about her track record of reform." That's an example where body language undermines the message. Another example was when Palin "shook her head 'no' while making statements in the affirmative." Goman saw Palin do this several times, once when she was stating that McCain can bring both sides together. "There's some type of internal conflict there," Goman says.

Turning to Koegel, his first thought was, "Biden could have smiled more, and Palin could have smiled less." Biden's weakness was the "deadpan" look that accompanied some of his longer answers. But he did a good job of making eye contact with Palin, the moderator, and the camera. Palin looked at the camera for most of the debate, which Koegel feels is less conversational.

Goman says it's no small point that Palin favored the camera with her eye contact. "That was a very positive thing for her to do." It was "absolutely congruent" with her message of talking directly to the American people.

Final Thoughts

From the very first handshake, this debate was more cordial than the first presidential debate, Koegel tells WebMD. The candidates "genuinely seemed interested in meeting each other and talking about the issues. They were both passionate about their topics and organized in their message." Although Koegel did not choose a winner, he believes the debate benefited Palin more. Expectations were low after her recent television interviews, and her solid performance in the debate may have changed some impressions.

Goman says Biden won. "If you were just reading the transcript, he would have won by a bigger margin. But if you look at all the body language, he only edged her out." The reason? "[Palin] really stepped up." She avoided the "deer in the headlights look" and exceeded expectations.

"Overall it was a very pleasant debate," Roberts says. "We didn't get aggression from Palin or condescension from Biden." She gives Biden the win, but "only by a smidgen and only because I think he looked more vice presidential and certainly more presidential, based on his body language and non-hesitant answers." She adds that Palin's goal was not to win a debate, but to show that she could do the job. "There is no doubt that she held her own. ... She gave us a much better vision of who she is and what she knows." Win or no-win, Palin "helped herself and the ticket."

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on October 03, 2008

Sources

SOURCES:

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

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

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

© 2008 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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