Could a president like William Howard Taft (over
300 pounds) or Franklin Roosevelt (confined to a wheelchair) be elected in an
age of television? Would the public choose Lincoln over Douglas if they could
see Lincoln's face, described by many as extremely ugly?
visual medium of television shades reality.
Bob Dole notes that his analysis of the Kennedy-Nixon radio debate changed dramatically
when he saw the videotapes later. Nixon's sweaty, shadowy face contrasted poorly
with the confident smile of the young Kennedy.
would otherwise go unnoticed, can become important. Did President Bush's glance
at his watch reveal his impatience with the debate, or was it a meaningless reflex?
In his interview, Bush regrets the big deal that was made from a private moment.
candidates' posture and gestures can reveal a lot. Notice the debaters' stances
at the podiums. With the sound turned down, what does the body language say?
the 1976 debate between Presidents Carter and Ford a technical difficulty created
an uncomfortable situation. While technicians tried to fix a sound problem, both
Carter and Ford stood stiffly for 27 minutes at the podiums. Neither wanted to
sit down, for fear of seeming to back away.
How do you think
an event like that affects a voter's opinion of a candidate?
those evaluations matter? When debates are on television, does everything become
Is the picture, as the adage suggests, "worth
a thousand words"; or, does the picture simplify and obscure a complex issue?
Could the visual image actually distract from critical thinking?
Activity for Teachers of Public Speaking/Debate:
activity can help to bring home to students the fact that we "size up the
speaker" quite quickly based on demeanor and "look" rather than
Early on in the class, begin a lecture for which
you are very well-prepared, and for which you have rehearsed an animated delivery.
Tell the students to listen carefully and proceed for about ten minutes. Then
stop. Ask the students to describe your performance in just four words that come
to them quickly without any long reflection. Have them write down the words. Randomly
elicit their responses and make a list of them on the board. You will probably
get things like "organized", "interesting" "smart"
(but be prepared for negative ones, depending on the maturity and seriousness
of the group).
Shift the discussion to how the students arrived
at their judgements. Questions like, "How did I move?" get them to focus
on the non-verbal behavior that supports a clear message. Now ask then to describe
what you said. Discuss which made more of an impact.
for further study:
Brennan, Ruth M.G.: Listening for a President:
A Citizen's Campaign Methodology. Praeger Publishers, 1990
Robert: Rhetorical Studies of National Political Debate. Praeger Publishers, 1997
P.R.: The Politics of Style Since JFK. Chicago, 1995
Kathleen Hall: Eloquence in an Electronic Age. New York: Oxford University Press,
Kendall, Kathleen: Presidential Campaign Discourse.
State University of New York Press, 1995
The Private Death of Public Discourse. Beacon Press, 1998