I watched the much-anticipated debate between Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz. Both men are running for the Pennsylvania senate, a key race that may define who controls Congress.
The pundits and journalists were highly focused on Fetterman’s stroke symptoms. The Lt. Governor has been off the campaign trail for months following his May stroke, which required surgery to implant a pacemaker with a defibrillator and revealed that he had a serious heart condition. While Fetterman spoke haltingly at times and had to have questions and answers transcribed in real time to help with his auditory processing issues, I think those who have been reviewing the debate missed the boat.
As a communications coach, I do not think Fetterman’s stroke recovery symptoms defined his performance. Messaging and perhaps poor coaching, did. Right at the start, he was asked what qualifies him to be in the Senate. Instead of touting his credentials as a former mayor who worked to build a once-booming steel town back from collapse or his ongoing fight for criminal justice, setting up GED programs or mentoring successes with Big Brothers/Big Sisters, he answered by attacking his opponent. This was a huge, missed opportunity that should not be overlooked.
While attacking your opponent and focusing on their shortcomings is part of any debate, setting the tone and communicating your message impactfully as soon as you open your mouth is critical. If you don’t grab your listeners attention by communicating value, much of what you say may be wasted because people will stop listening. Additionally, studies show people tend to remember what they hear first and what they hear last.
If you search for articles on how to successfully debate, you’ll see most focus on preparation, delivery, body language, keeping calm, anticipating follow up questions, knowing the subject matter and techniques to make an argument. All are important, but I want to talk about overlooked soft skills that can help you become more successful in any arena.
- Persuade. In a debate or pitch, your goal is to persuade listeners that your product, qualifications, or services are right for them. If the audience understands what you or your product can do for them to make their lives better or easier, they will be more likely to see things from your point of view. Fetterman missed that opportunity when he launched into attacking Oz before telling viewers why he was the best for the job.
- Stories. Like Dr. Oz did, it’s important to use real life examples that connect your listeners to your topic. Painting the picture by creating visual help listeners feel like they are right there with you. People don’t remember all the facts and figures. They remember stories and examples which touch their hearts and make messages more meaningful and relatable.
- Three Questions. Whenever you speak you should ask three questions. What does this mean to them? Why should they care? What’s the so what? This will help you speak from your audience’s point of view so it’s about them and not you. For example, if you want your audience to buy plant fertilizer, instead of saying “WE offer fertilizer that will help your flowers grow big and bright,” if you said, “You will grow bigger brighter plants that need less watering,” the message is about them.
Whether debating or speaking in a variety of arenas, every speaking engagement is an opportunity to communicate your message and create awareness. You don’t have to be a professional speaker to shine. You do have to connect with your audience in the first few seconds if you want them to keep listening.