The Drama of the Debates
Courtesy Dan Klein
By Sam Scott
Stanford asked Daniel Klein, ’90, about all the non-verbal cues being used? during the debates. Klein a lecturer in the drama department and at the Graduate School of Business, teaches improvisation at Stanford. Among his classes is “Acting With Power,” which explores the use of status behaviors to increase organizational effectiveness. He’s the ultimate person with whom to have a water cooler post-debate recap.
The second debate quickly shaped up as clash of alpha males. How soon was that apparent to you?
From the moment they entered. You probably noticed: they came in, they went to their seats, and Obama sat down and realized that Romney was still standing. There was this odd moment of ‘Okay, who has higher status here, the guy who sat first or the guy who is still standing?’ It looked like Obama was wondering, ‘Would it look weird for me to stand back up?’
What did you notice about their posture during the rest of the debate?
They both play high-status guys. They have a stillness and erectness. They take up space, they gesture away from their body rather than closing themselves off. They look people in the eye when they talk to them and they hold their heads still when they talk. There are not a lot of stray, fidgety movements.
On posture alone, did one show an advantage?
I think Romney is lifted a little bit more in the chest. I think Obama holds himself a little bit collapsed. It’s a really subtle difference and I don’t know if there are viewers who are responding to this.
If you took all the other things out of it, like race and politics, if you just look at their postures, Romney holds himself slightly, slightly more elevated. He takes up just a little bit more space.
My guess is if there are people who are trying to decide ‘is this a person who can hold the office of President,’ that’s when they might say Romney looks more presidential.
What about speaking styles?
Obama has a hitch. When he’s not reading a script, when he’s composing his words in the moment, he pauses right before some words.
The impression is he’s checking to make sure the next word he’s going to say is the exact right word. It’s almost imperceptible, but it makes his voice seem a little bit stilted, a little bit unsure. Romney doesn’t seem to have that. When he talks, his words flow together.
So advantage again to Romney?
Romney has an advantage in terms of fluidity, but politics comes into this. There were times when Romney was perfectly fluid and he was saying things like ‘binders full of women,’ which of course instantly became a giant meme and cultural punch line.
So, maybe Obama is staying out of? trouble by being a little more careful and measured and maybe that’s something that’s also conveying that he’s a thoughtful president and doesn’t fly off the handle.
When Obama went on the attack, he found his voice,. The feel shifted. My 12-year-old son [was] watching and could tell that Romney looked mad, he looked frustrated. It looked to [my son] like Obama was winning. I actually had to take a step back and think ‘What is it he’s seeing?’
What did you see as differences from the first debate?
Obama exhibited a lot more body language that indicated being present and connected, by doing less—less nodding, less moving his head, less glancing down. I feel like you could hear him exhale; his breathing wasn’t as easy the first time.
I think [with] Romney the difference was he was calm and at ease, but energetic and on point in the first one. And I think he started that way, but he got a little bit rattled in the second one. I think he got frustrated and angry.
He did high status things with [the moderator] in the first debate when he said ‘No, it’s my time to talk.’ He tried that with [the moderator in the second debate] and it was as if she had watched every moment of the previous debate and was like, ‘I’m not going to let that happen.’ It looked like he was getting knocked around in a different way.
In all the jostling, you could say neither candidate displayed much grace. Is there no room for that in a high-stakes presidential debate?
I think the most masterful moves in recent debates were when a high-status alpha male was able to drop down and connect, and it ends up being extremely touching and mesmerizing. People still marvel at Bill Clinton’s ability to go alpha male then drop down and connect.
I think I saw Romney trying to do it, but he ended up talking about binders full of women and in the end it didn’t quite ring true. I think Obama was trying to do it by bringing in his daughters (on the same question), but time was already out.
If the image of the tender alpha male is so powerful, why didn’t we see more attempts at it?
I think it’s hard. I think it’s an art. In a way, playing high status is technical and I think the connection-approachability aspect is more artistic.
If body language and performance are teachable skills, are the debates really any sort of window to the soul? Or are we just seeing coaching?
Much of it is coachable, but at some level it is absolutely a window. It may be in micro-movements and micro-facial expressions that just flash by in an instant before we get control of them, but I think there really are things that our bodies do that betray our actual beliefs and our actual thoughts, whether we have been coached or not.
So how would you advise the candidates ahead of the final debate tonight?
If the alpha battle gets any more intense, it will be too much. It will turn everyone off. If Romney gets more aggressive, Obama has an opportunity to almost play aikido with it. If [Obama] is able to sidestep it, and make fewer but more deliberate attacks but not go head to head, I think it could be a successful strategy.
I think Romney has an opportunity to play on his strength in terms of being a compelling presence. He’s being painted as being out of touch and any example that shows that gets amplified. But if he can demonstrate in this last debate that he’s actually in touch, that he not only has command of foreign policy and what to do, but that he’s in touch with every American, I think he’ll have filled the only hole that might sink him.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
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Data is from the past two weeks.