Beyond Words

For the presidential candidates, the debate isn’t just about what they say, but how they say it

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama speaking

When Barack Obama and Mitt Romney appear at their first debate on Oct. 3, they will have spent countless hours rehearsing and probably have a good punch line or two to drop into the proceedings at an opportune moment. It would also serve each man well to think about a different kind of preparation—how to use voice, posture and facial expressions to captivate the audience, says Barbara Wallace Grossman, Professor of Drama at Tufts.

Among the courses Grossman teaches is Voice and Speech: The Art of Confident Expression. She also directs plays, coaching students on how to project their voices and take the stage as confident and relaxed performers. She sat down with Tufts Now to offer some advice, not just to the presidential candidates, but to anyone who has to speak in public.

Tufts Now: What’s the most important thing political candidates, or any of us for that matter, should think about when we get up in front of an audience?

Barbara Wallace Grossman: Studies have shown that an audience’s impression of a speaker is based largely on non-verbal communication, rather than on what they hear. Of course in a presidential debate, people are very much interested in content, but according to certain studies, 55 percent of a speaker’s initial impact on an audience comes from appearance and body language, 38 percent from the quality of his or her voice, and only 7 percent comes from what is actually being said.

Candidates need to be aware that people watching and listening are really going to be judging them not just on what they say, but on the way they sound and look. You can go back to the Kennedy-Nixon debate on TV in 1960 as an example of this: John F. Kennedy appeared young, handsome and vigorous, while Richard Nixon was sweating profusely and looked like he needed a shave. The physical contrast was devastating for Nixon.

How can a speaker cope with being nervous?

Anybody who is going to speak or debate should do a few warm-up exercises for physical relaxation. Arm stretches to each side, gentle head and neck rolls, shoulder lifts, and knee bends can really help. Deep breathing—in through the nose and out through the mouth—is relaxing, especially breathing out with an Awww sound. Drinking warm tea or room temperature water is also a good idea to relax the vocal cords.

What about facial expression?

The candidates need to remember to be expressive and smile. If you look too somber and disapproving, it’s not a good thing. Even an expression that would look neutral in person could come across on TV as bored or morose.

What’s the best way to stand behind the podium?

Barbara Wallace Grossman. Photo: Jodi HiltonBarbara Wallace Grossman. Photo: Jodi Hilton
They should stand in a way that doesn’t make them look too tense or stiff. I would recommend a stance with one foot slightly in front of the other so the weight is resting more on the leg that’s behind you. Basically you look and feel stable, and you’re not rocking back and forth. You project confidence and authority. You can also stand with feet parallel, hip-width apart if that’s more comfortable. In either position, it’s important not to lock the knees and to look and feel that you’re in a state of energized readiness.

How about tone of voice?

The voice is the most overlooked and underutilized presentational tool we have. People often don’t think about what they sound like. When you realize that 38 percent of a speaker’s initial impact on an audience comes from the way she sounds, it’s very important and shouldn’t be underestimated. The voice is an instrument and we all have to learn how to use ours with maximum expressiveness and effectiveness.

A speaker has to make a connection with the audience in a positive way. Voice can really help with that. Speakers need to make sure their voices are animated. The last thing a speaker wants is a voice that sounds robotic or monotonous. You need to have variety in terms of pitch, volume and pace. Audiences are quick to pick up on physical and vocal cues. You can look poised and self-assured, but if you start talking in a voice that comes from the back of your throat or that sounds tense, muffled or strangled, that will say a lot. So much of it has to do with breath and support, with standing up straight and landing your energy—creating an electric arc of communication between you and your audience.

Also, be careful of vocal tics that can be distracting—um, ah, like, you know—and mannerisms such as licking lips and clearing throats.

Can you over-prepare?

The danger of over-preparation is when speakers try to memorize everything. You can rehearse to the point where you think, “I need to say everything just as I learned it,” but then you come across as robotic. Or you’ve said something so many times in rehearsal that you sound flat when you actually have to say it before an audience.

Who’s really good at this?

President Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention this year was masterful. Everything about it was brilliant because he made it seem as though he were talking to each person individually, whether they were there in the audience or at home watching on TV. He made eye contact with the television audience by speaking directly into the camera, yet also had moments when he focused on people in the convention audience. Because he was so animated and expressive, the TV audience stayed engaged.

President Clinton also used his hands very effectively. He didn’t flail around or make wild gestures which would have been distracting but held his hands close to his body and moved them in a fairly small area. You can tell he’s had vocal coaching, because most coaches teach their students about something called the “hand box.” Imagine drawing a little box on your body from the breastbone to the chin and from one armpit to the other. Voice coaches recommend keeping your hands within this box when you’re on television, so they’ll be visible on camera. If you go outside the box, your hands will move in and out of camera range and that can be distracting to viewers.

What’s the bottom line?

You want to be vocally, physically and mentally ready. It’s not just that you’ve been prepped and know what you want to talk about. To be an effective speaker, your body and voice have to convey the same state of energized readiness and confidence.

Marjorie Howard can be reached at

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