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What to Watch For During the Presidential Debates.
By Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D.
Thursday, 18th September 2008

The major story of the first televised presidential debate (in 1960) became the photogenic appeal of John F Kennedy versus the sickly look of his opponent, Richard Nixon.

Several factors contributed to the poor image of Nixon:  His ill health leading up to the debate had resulted in a drastic weight loss.  He refused to wear makeup, although his illness had left him with a pallid complexion. He wore a suit that blended in with the  light grey color of the set's backdrop.  And, to make matters worse, the cameras caught Nixon wiping perspiration from his forehead while Kennedy was pressing him on the issues.

As for Kennedy, he excelled in front of the camera. A polished public speaker, Kennedy appeared young, athletic, handsome, and poised. His practice of looking at the camera when answering questions -- and not at the journalists who asked them, as Nixon did -- made viewers see him as someone who was talking directly to them and who gave them straight answers.

When the debate ended, a large majority of television viewers recognized Kennedy as the winner.

On the other hand, most radio listeners thought that Nixon had won.

Obviously, appearance and body language mattered!

Today's candidates are fully aware of (and heavily coached on) the impact of nonverbal cues. Still, a debate is never as scripted nor as controlled as a formal speech - and there are things to watch for that can give you insights into hidden motivations and feelings.

This is especially true if you notice those nonverbal signals that are in response to an unpredicted moment.
As you view the upcoming presidential debates, here are 10 things what to watch for: 

1) Eye blinks. Under pressure or discomfort, eye blinks increase dramatically. Watch to see what topics cause a candidate's eye blink rate to race.

2) Congruence. When someone totally believes what they're saying, there is an automatic synchronicity between words and gestures. Watch to see when nonverbal signals are aligned with the spoken word and when they are out of sync (a cue that there is some conflict between what's being said and the speaker's true feelings).
3) Narrowed lips. Lips that tighten (or almost disappear into the mouth) are almost always a negative signal. Watch for this gesture as a signal that someone is either holding back key information or  they really don't want to respond to a particular question.

4) Breathing patterns. Holding one's breath is a natural human reaction when facing danger. Watch for a sudden, sharp intake of breath or a change of breathing into small, shallow breaths as a signal that someone feels threatened.

5) Hand gestures. There are a variety of hand gestures that speak for themselves: Hand-to-mouth gestures (the hand brushes the lips or touches the nose) are deception cues that people unconsciously use when lying - or when listening to someone else who they believe is lying. Open palm gestures are convincing signals of candor. And the "steepling hands" gesture (palms separated slightly, fingers of both hands spread and finger tips touching) is a display of high confidence. In fact, if either candidate uses steepling, you will notice it at a time when that person feels the most prepared and assured.

6) Body leans. People lean toward other people or things they like or are interested in. Watch for candidates to lean in slightly when they feel they are being asked a question that addresses a strength and lean back slightly when confronted with a question that might expose a weakness.

7) Smiling. There is a big difference between real and fake smiles. Watch to see which situations or comments elicit a real smile that lights up the candidate's entire face and crinkles the eyes - and which rate a "fake" or social smile that simply pulls up the corners of the mouth. And pay attention to the appropriateness of the smile. A smile at the wrong time (like when discussing solemn issues) is a disconcerting signal that words and feelings are out of alignment.

9) Micro-expressions. Fleeting facial expressions often allow the truth to slip through in brief, unguarded moments. Watch for flashes of anger, disgust, surprise, joy or fear that are expressed before the conscious mind can rein them in and create a more appropriate reaction.

10) Security gestures. A security barrier - one that is favored by politicians, television personalities, salespeople and others who don't want to appear nervous or unsure - is formed when one arm swings in front of the body so that the opposite hand can touch a shirt cuff, bracelet, watch or other object on the arm. In fact, any time you see someone move his arms across his body, chances are he's silently (and unconsciously) reassuring himself.

Please remember: There is no such thing as universal body language. Beyond cultural variances, every individual has his or her own set of nonverbal behaviors that is normal for that person. Trying to decode body language cues without considering baseline behaviors can give a "false read."

For example, Senator McCain has a baseline high blink rate. When viewed for the first time, it can look as if he is highly stressed or being deceptive. Senator Obama often tilts his head back and to the side when listening to another person's remarks. When viewed for the first time, this backward tilt can look like a signal of arrogance or superiority. Be aware of baseline behaviors so that you can watch for the sudden changes from "normal" that are most telling.

And keep in mind that nonverbal cues occur in what is called a "gesture cluster" -- a group of movements, postures and actions that reinforce a common point. A single gesture can have several meanings or mean nothing at all (sometimes a cigar is just a cigar), but when you couple that single gesture with other nonverbal signals, the meaning becomes clearer.

So as the campaign rolls on toward November, watch for these nonverbal cues. Try to stay as unbiased as possible while viewing the debates. And beware of the "halo effect" - the leniency with witch we interpret the body language of candidates we already favor.

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., is an executive coach, keynote speaker, and author of "THE NONVERBAL ADVANTAGE - Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work." For more information, contact Carol by phone:   510-526-1727  , email:, or through her websites: and

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