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Take-aways for us from the debate disaster.

Plenty of pixels have already been spilled on last week’s presidential debate. You’ve no doubt read the political analysis from your preferred point of view … I don’t need to add to that torrent of takes.

You might benefit, though, from exploring what went wrong for President Biden speaking-wise, and what you can do in your next presentation to avoid an unfortunate outcome.

Here are a few suggestions the president could have used. And you can too.

Ground yourself.

Whether you’re standing at the front of a conference room, a hotel ballroom, or a TV studio, take your position with a solid stance, feet hip-width apart, flat on the floor, even pressing into the floor.

Your knees are straight, but not locked. Your pelvis is level, your spine lengthened and erect. Your shoulders are relaxed and down. Your neck is straight over your shoulders, your chin level, the crown of your head toward the ceiling.

Your arms are relaxed at your sides. Soon you’ll be using them, gesturing to enhance what you’re saying, to bring more energy to your speech.

But first there’s that moment in Tadasana, Mountain Pose. Grounded, centered, and ready for what’s to come.

Embrace the elephant in the room.

From the moment he opened his mouth, President Biden sounded weak and raspy. We know his voice isn’t as strong as it once was, but even for him it sounded bad. Well into the debate, his people in the spin room put out the word, “The president has a cold.”

Biden himself should have acknowledged that early on. Not in a poor-me way, but just matter-of-factly. “Sorry about my voice – I caught a bit of a cold. Bear with me, will you?” And he moves on from there, with the creaky voice issue out of the way.

Like the president, I have stenosis. I’ve also had back surgery—and now I have “Failed Back Surgery Syndrome.” Yes, that’s a thing. It’s a painful thing and it makes me crooked and wobbly. I bristle at the idea that an awkward gait disqualifies a person from public life, but still, it’s not a good look for a speaker.

I worried about it, especially in front of a younger, hipper audience. What if they look at me and see a weak old lady?!?

So, from the stage, early on, I said, “Maybe you’ve noticed I wobble a bit—back surgery. My suggestions for you are solid, though. Here’s how you …” I went on and from there, my posture was a non-issue.

When something’s awry in the room where we’re speaking, or when something’s going on with us, it’s likely our listeners are noticing it. It’s a mistake to soldier on as if nothing is happening. That disconnects us from our audience.

We can only make a strong energetic connection with the people who came to hear what we have to say when we walk right up to the elephant in the room and pet it.

They call it “eye contact” for a reason.

We connect with our audience eyes-to-eyes and heart-to-heart. Americans associate honesty, confidence, and caring with eye contact. So, speakers miss the boat when they fail to use it effectively. And many of them do.

President Biden appeared to be looking off to the side as he spoke. It made him seem disengaged and confused, even apart from the words he was saying. And he should know better, as long as he’s been speaking for a living.

The truth is, he was looking at the moderators who’d asked him a question. The way the stage was set up, they weren’t directly in front of him. The camera was, though. And that’s where he should have been looking. Not at Jake Tapper or Dana Bash. At us.

You’re not likely to be on a stage in Atlanta for a televised debate. But how often do you sit down in front of a Zoom screen for a virtual meeting or presentation?  Eye contact counts there, too.

Our temptation is to look at the faces in those squares on the screen. After all, we’re talking to them, aren’t we?

Well yes. And the way to do that turns out to be not to look at them. When you look at someone on your Teams screen, what they see on their screen is you…looking down and off to your left or right.

For them to perceive you making eye contact with them, you need to resist the temptation to look at their image on the screen. Instead, look through the camera. And imagine your listener(s) just on the other side of that camera. When you do that, the image your audience sees is you, talking right to them. Comfortable, confident, and connected.

Eye contact is critically important when you’re in the room with your audience, too. You’ll find the guidance I give my clients on my blog.

Start strong.

CNN’s Van Jones wasn’t the only commentator who observed that Biden lost the debate “in the first three minutes.”

You know (because you know me) how important your opening is when you’re giving a presentation, introducing yourself at a networking event, or, yes, answering your first question in a debate.

It’s sometimes possible to overcome a weak beginning, but it’s very challenging and it distracts us from delivering our message.

Remember the law of primacy and the law of recency. Your first few minutes and the end of your talk will make the biggest impression on your audience. Use them well.

Stay present.

You’ve probably heard the analysts who say President Biden was over-prepared or over-practiced, loaded with data to deliver.

He did sound as if he were spouting bits of rehearsed content, often without the context it needed. Or in response to a question about something else entirely.

Rehearsal’s important for any high-stakes presentation. And. Nothing is more critical than being present, right here, right now, with the people listening to you.

Once you’re in front of an audience, allow all that prepping you did before to support you as you engage with them in the moment.

Yes, HOW matters at least as much as WHAT.

Responding to criticism of the president’s performance, one pundit after another has griped that American voters and editorial writers seem to value style more than substance.

  • [Trump’s] “stage presence was superior and so he is hailed as the victor, his convicted felon status seemingly less important than his performance skills”
  • “The grim spectacle was a reminder that this is a style over substance game.”
  • “If we’re only going to count style over substance, I’ll take hoarse and halting over hate-filled and unhinged every day of the week.”

I’m confident your presentation wouldn’t be hate-filled and unhinged on any day of the week. What you can take away from this, however, is that it’s true. People do pay attention to how you deliver your message.

Often that matters more than the specifics of your presentation. Always, it matters at least as much.

That means it’s worth your while to polish and practice. To make sure you use your body, your face, and your voice together to connect with your audience and convey your message.