If you’re a communicator, debates are a masochist’s game.
Watching from home can be deceiving. Politicians trading insults and trying to cram transformative policy proposals into 10-second soundbites makes for good television, but the work that goes into each quip and retort takes guts, patience, and a lot of grueling hours.
For many communications professionals, the nuts and bolts of debate prep look like your standard media prep; anticipate questions, get responses ready, and always stay on message. But political debates are different, and unless you approach them differently, the consequences can turn from your election night party into an election night wake.
First and foremost, let’s dispel the myth that everyone needs debate prep. It doesn’t matter if you’re a former cabinet-level official and United States senator or a reality television figure, your lifetime in the spotlight isn’t an automatic qualifier for a winning debate performance.
Candidates will scream and moan and even mingle with voters to avoid it, but like raising money or attending the Iowa State Fair, everyone has to do it at some point. So what makes for good debate prep? What does every communicator need in order to get their candidate in fighting shape once the cameras turn on and the mics are live?
Well first, you have to be fearless. Debate prep for a candidate is the time during which they’re most vulnerable. Any issue they’re not read up on, any talking point they haven’t memorized, any attack their not ready for could come out. For most politicians, a reminder that they may not be ready is not a welcomed one.
For communicators, you have to attack and expose these weakness with vigor and fearless abandon. Candidates who aren’t pushed won’t be ready to push back, and that could result in a bad moment on the big stage.
Second, when it comes to effective prep, quiet counts. Debate prep usually happens in the weeks leading up to the debate. They happen between rallies, fundraising events, and the absolute insanity that is the 24-hour campaign that modern politicians face. Noise is ubiquitous, but it is also dangerous.
Demand quiet. If there are distractions, from smartphones to family members, kick them out and lock the door. There’s nothing that can derail good debate prep like a candidate who decides to go on an unannounced Tweetstorm, or a spouse who insists on getting their two cents in.
Finally, acknowledge that you can’t change your candidate overnight, or in some cases, at all. Sometimes, your candidate just isn’t a good debater. Sometimes, your candidate won’t stick to the script or deliver that brilliant line you came up with in the shower exactly like you envisioned. That’s fine. Accept it and focus on your candidate’s strengths and how best to exploit your opponent’s weaknesses.
As tens of millions of Americans turn on their television sets in the coming weeks to watch Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump square off, and as a significantly smaller number tune in to Senate, House, and other down-ballot debates, just remember that beyond the pomp and pageantry, there’s a nervous communicator hoping that they’ve done everything they can to get their candidate ready – and they’re not having a bit of fun.
Anthony DeAngelo is media relations manager for global marketing and communications at APCO Worldwide.