Thursday, October 02, 2008

Paul Begala’s Coaching Tips for Communicators

Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House.

He has been involved in most of the presidential and vice presidential debates over the past 20 years.

He has done debate prep, been a spin doctor, convened the greatest comedy writers in Hollywood in a one-liner factory and even played George W. Bush for Al Gore's practice debates.

Here is a taste of Begala’s tips for political debating on the eve of the much-awaited US Vice Presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden.

They have application for most other forms of oral communication:

Don't cram: If your debate prep is dominated by propeller-heads, you're in trouble. I love the nerds, Lord knows, but they can overwhelm you. In 1984, the brilliant Richard Darman overloaded Ronald Reagan with minutiae, perhaps in an effort to dispel rumors that the Gipper had lost a step.

The strategy blew up in the Reagan campaign's face. In his first debate with Walter Mondale, Reagan stumbled and stammered. There was too much new information clanging around in his brain. But by the second debate, he blew away concerns about his age. He did this not with a rapid-fire recitation of statistics, but with a classic Reagan quip: "I will not use my opponent's youth and inexperience as an issue in this campaign." Which leads me to my next rule:

Wit is Sticky: John Kerry bested George W Bush in all of their debates, according to the polls. And yet voters were left without any take-home point. That's because Kerry not only lacked a clear, coherent message (see No. 1 above), he didn't use humor. In fact, I was told that one of his aides later bragged that Kerry had refused to use any of the "cute lines" my Hollywood writers had sent his way -- as if being witty were beneath him.

The most memorable lines are often the funniest. Think of jug-eared Ross Perot crowing, "If you have a better plan ... I'm all ears." Or former POW McCain saying of a plan to build a museum at the site of the Woodstock concert, "I'm sure it was a cultural and pharmacological event. But I could not attend. I was tied up at the time."

Chris Rock recently told Larry King that people only laugh at a line if they see some truth in it. Smart candidates ought to heed Rock's observation.

To read the ten top tips for debaters and oral communicators follow this link:

10 Rules for Winning a Debate, CNN, 1 October 2008.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Some US Presidential and VP Nominee Debaters.