The first 2016 presidential debate is over, and the talking heads in the media and the masses on the social media are hyperfocused on who won. I think the answer that question is pretty obvious. But I’d like to step back and consider that there may be something here that is less obvious that we need to consider, and it has nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with real life. Preparation matters! Clinton was completely prepared, and easily won the debate. Trump – looking very much like the kid who didn’t do his homework – was completely unworthy of victory.
Please don’t mistake my interpretation as being a political stance. In no way am I supporting Hillary Clinton. But it has to be obvious that Trump’s performance was completely amateurish.
If I can venture a political opinion it’s that we’re in deep poop no matter which candidate wins. I say this because while it’s clear that Clinton won the debate, she like Trump failed to spell out any details of how she is going to bring about the change that she promises. The absence of details is a strong indication that there is no plan.
But I don’t want to get into politics, and prefer to focus this article on what it is that I think we need to take away from the debate, and that’s that preparation matters. Outcomes can be changed in positive directions with enough preparation.
The Outcome of the Debate Speaks for Itself
I confess to being completely surprised by the outcome of the debate. Trump did so well in the Republican debates, and is an impressive person when addressing crowds and participating in news interviews.
But it was clear that it was Clinton who was controlling the debate. She was careful to stay on point, and it was only obvious that certain lines that she delivered were scripted. In fact, I was certain she went out of her way to deliver short phrases that were designed to be converted into sound bites.
Trump spent most of the debate on the defensive. Not only was he unprepared in his own remarks , but it was equally clear that he did not spend much time studying his opponent. If he had, he might have easily deflected her comments, and put her on the defensive.
No matter, it didn’t play out that way. Clinton was prepared, Trump was not, and the outcome should be embarrassing for Trump.
Clinton’s Preparation was Only Obvious
Clinton prepared for the debate the way a law student might prepare for the bar exam. She even admitted this near the end of the debate. Her preparation was thorough, as it was clear she was ready for whatever might come up. Not only was she meticulous about her own presentation, but it was clear that she also studied the “book” on Trump. She knew his weak points, and knew how to get him flustered.
Back in the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was in the White House, we heard the term “talking points”. I’m not sure that the term was crafted by the Clintons, but the practice is closely associated with them. They focus on several points in an issue, and make sure that they are 100% clear in their presentation of them. It’s a certainty that Hillary’s head was drenched in talking points on various issues. You could even tell at certain points where she was pausing to organize her thoughts on a topic.
At the beginning, I mentioned that neither candidate provided any details as to how they’re going to carry out their agenda. This not only hints at the lack of an actual plan, but it’s also a perfect rearguard strategy. If you don’t provide any details of your plan, there is nothing for anyone to attack. This is a tried-and-true strategy that has been employed by countless successful politicians.
Hillary employed the strategy to the fullest. By filling up her time with talking points, she kept her side of the debate moving forward. The talking points, it seems, were developed from opinion polls, mixed with a little bit of influence from Bernie Sanders. She was speaking to the middle class about jobs, education, opportunity, and public safety, without providing a single detail as to how to make improvements.
Strong preparation made it possible for her to win the debate strictly by staying with generalities, rather than by articulating complex plans. It was all about hitting the emotional hot buttons of the typical voter.
And notice that even though Clinton is no less a member of the elite class than Trump, she successfully painted him as a committed elitist by describing his business practices. And while the email scandal might have been a centerpiece issue, Clinton instead focused attention on Trump’s undisclosed income tax returns. You can even get away with hypocrisy if you’re well enough prepared!
And So was Trump’s Lack of Preparation
We’ve all seen Donald Trump in the public arena. He’s a certified master at it. He’s both a businessman and a performer, and his reckless style appeals to the masses. Even if he can’t win on details, he has a way of overwhelming his opponents with the power of his personality. In a world where we have largely been beaten into becoming trained ponies, people find that approach to be refreshing. I believe that applies even to his enemies, even if they’re loathe to admit it.
But none of that helped him on Monday night. Why?
Presidential debates are often won and lost on the power of a candidate’s personality. But the core of each debate is in positions on the issues. The candidate must show strong direction on the issues, while using personality to resonate with the voters.
Trump displayed an incredible lack of understanding on the issues, to the point of deflecting questions. However, I don’t believe he did that because he didn’t understand the issues. Rather, I think he did it to cover for the fact that he had not formed clear responses before the debate. When the questions came up, he wasn’t ready.
Another tactic he used was phrase repetition. He kept repeating himself all night, particularly certain phrases that he may have felt had emotional appeal. For example, several times he said “it’s a beautiful thing”, as well as “they love me”. Those are the kind of things that you say when you don’t know what to say. He did too much of that in an attempt to cover for his lack of preparation.
While Clinton was rehearsing her lines and responses into the wee hours, Trump’s preparations were obviously minimal. Trump overrated his ability to rise to the occasion, as he has so many times in the past. Monday night, it blew up on him.
Trump’s style is to come off as completely natural. For that reason, he doesn’t rehearse. In fact, he came across in the debate as a real estate developer promoting his latest project. That kind of sales job may work in a business deal, but it won’t win the hearts and minds of the masses, many of whom feel that they are being oppressed by exactly that class of people.
Something else is obvious to… Trump is not well guided by his team. I suspect that’s not accidental. In Trump’s world, Trump is supreme. It’s likely that he surrounds himself with “yes men” who don’t dare make a critical evaluation of him. That means that if there are flaws in his performance, none of “his people” will say so.
It’s been my experience that this is the dominant mindset in the business world, particularly among the very successful. When the leader comes out and declares that the organization is going in a certain direction, everyone must “get on board”. If you have a dissenting opinion, even if that opinion has great potential to strengthen the outcome of the mission, you are accused of “not being a team player”.
In most cases, your role will either be diminished, or you may be thrown off the team (appropriately, the most memorable phrase from Trump’s show The Apprentice is “you’re fired!” ). The objective is always to be hyper-enthusiastic about the mission declared by the leader, then to throw all of your efforts into making the project work.
Unfortunately, that’s a corporate mindset that doesn’t translate well outside of large business organizations. It works best with people who are on salary from the organization, and can therefore be controlled. Trump has surrounded himself with too many people who fit this category. There is no one to tell him when he’s heading in the wrong direction, under the assumption that he ever might listen to the advice.
No matter how brilliant a businessman Trump might be, and no matter how much power he wields within his own organizations, his lack of preparation for Monday’s debate made him look like an oaf. There’s no other way to put it.
But that’s the message for the rest of us. Preparation matters!
Using this Lesson When Facing a Major Event
Very few people have Donald Trump’s unbridled confidence, let alone his stage presence. But clearly even Trump can’t always rise to the occasion. What that means for the rest of us is that we need to overcome a lack of ability with a large helping of preparation.
Whenever you’re facing a major event in your life, a job interview, a court appearance, a conflict with someone else, a sales presentation, a loan request or a business presentation, you must be well prepared. Oftentimes, that preparation alone will provide you with the confidence that you need to win the event.
There are strategies that will help you prepare for any event you face:
Stay focused on a limited number of objectives. When you go into a major event, you should have a short list of goals that you want to achieve. Not only will limiting the number make the whole process easier to handle, but it will also increase the likelihood of success.
Be ready to provide the core reasons for your case. A book I read years ago said that you need to be able to answer a simple question: why you? Trump failed spectacularly in addressing that critical question Monday night. In almost any endeavor, we’re in competition with others. You must be certain of your abilities and advantages. Know them always, but especially when you’re about to enter a high stakes event.
Anticipate objections and obstacles. No matter how confident you are in your position, always anticipate likely objections. They will come. Your ability to prevail often hinges more on your ability to overcome objections than anything else. While it’s not possible to know every possible obstacle, you should be prepared to address those that are likely to come up.
Know the other party’s strengths. The other party’s strengths are what they will be offering. You need to know what they are, and to be able to cast doubt on them. It’s not always necessary to completely overcome an opponent’s strengths. If you can just raise a few questions in the listener’s minds, that may be enough to make your case.
Know the other party’s needs and weaknesses. If you know what the other party’s needs are, you can position yourself to fill them. This is an area where you need to be very specific – you need to be the solution to whatever the problem is. In a situation involving conflict, knowing the other party’s weaknesses gives you a target to exploit. Not with aggressive bluster, but with thoughtful facts.
Know your own weaknesses. We all have them! You need to know what yours are. This will enable you to minimize your weaknesses, or even to come up with entire new strategies to eliminate them. You also need to be able to coherently explain why they won’t hurt your case.
Get advice from people who know more, and put it to action. Donald Trump clearly has little input from the people on his staff, and the results speak for themselves. Get advice from good people, and put it into action. Hillary Clinton is surrounded by “handlers” who work to script her every move and statement. While her employment of the approach is more than a bit obsessive, it’s also clear that there is great value in taking advantage of third-party perspectives.
Keep cheat sheets. Most of us have a bad memory, particularly in tense moments. Never trust all of your critical points to memory. It’s perfectly acceptable to keep brief lists of important points. Personally, I prefer old-fashioned paper lists. People often appreciate notes as a demonstration of preparation. But if you fumble around with a list that is on your smartphone, it could appear as though you’re giving listeners less than full attention. Think about the times that you were dealing with someone on an important issue, and they kept looking at their smartphone; how did it make you feel? Don’t be that person!
Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Very few people are effective working off the cuff. Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama may have been the most accomplished politicians in that regard, but both also rehearsed frequently. We learn by doing, and when you rehearse, it gives you a fluid style that resonates with people. You need to be comfortable in any situation that requires you to persuade someone. If you’re unsure, the listener will be too.
Most of us can’t successfully “wing it” when we’re facing a major event. Even Donald Trump, a master of debates, failed in the face of a better prepared opponent. Preparation matters! That’s lesson we all need to take away from the debate.