The last fortnight has seen two TV debates in the US election campaign as Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump went head to head on 26 September and 9 October. Voice coach and Lead Tutor on our Executive Presence for Women programme Sheelagh McNamara was keeping a keen eye on their body language and public speaking skills at both debates. So – how did they do?

First debate – Monday 26 September

Hillary Clinton

It was an almost perfect performance from Hillary Clinton in terms of delivery. Not only had she clearly put in the time to prep and rehearse which gave her gravitas but her body language and vocal skills were finely honed.

  • Clinton held her space effectively throughout. Her stance was stable and grounded. Her posture open, there were no head tilts and her eye contact was direct and engaging.
  • Vocally, Clinton has an impressive range that she uses to full effect. While her overall pitch is fairly deep, lending her greater gravitas, she uses the variety of pitch available to her by employing brighter and higher notes to keep her speeches interesting and persuasive.
  • Her pace is steady, using appropriate pauses for emphasis, making her statements easy to follow without appearing hesitant. Like her husband she uses pause masterfully.
  • Content-wise, Clinton was well-prepared and sure of her facts. She worked in enough disclosure of her personal life – “My father was a small businessman. He worked really hard, he printed drapery fabrics on long tables” – without going overboard, making her seem approachable and genuine. Yet she also remained on topic when the conversation was derailed into personal attacks. “Let's talk about two important issues that were briefly mentioned by Donald. First NATO.” she continued firmly, in response to Trump’s attack on her temperament.
  • Finally, Clinton gave a masterclass in dealing with interruptions and derailments. While Trump attempted to interrupt her allotted time repeatedly (“I did not. I did not. I did not say that.”), Clinton did not allow the interruption or even make eye contact with him, instead driving through her point straight to camera with calm confidence.
  • Having willingly admitted to certain mistakes on email security, there was just one notable mistake during the debate. On the receiving end of Trump’s accusations, Clinton threw up her hands to exclaim:

    HILLARY CLINTON: I have a feeling that by the end of this evening, I'll be blamed for everything that's ever happened.

    Victimhood is not what I associate with Hillary. This moment seemed to show a lack of control and appeared both negative and defensive.

Other than this blip, it was a presidential performance from Clinton with bright energy, forceful leadership and plenty of gravitas.

Donald Trump

In contrast, Republican candidate Donald Trump began with low vocal energy and continued to perform erratically.

  • His vocal performance was lacking: aside from the much-documented sniffing, Trump’s monotone pitch and rapid pace undermined his purpose and meaning.
  • Instead of supporting his breath from the diaphragm his breath was high held as he sniffed in and grabbed breaths. This resulted in a voice that sounded panicked and emotional.
  • He used long rambling sentences. The lack of pauses made him even harder to follow. The overall effect was of someone who was flustered, out of control and unprepared.
  • Unlike Clinton, Trump never smiled throughout the debate which made him come across as angry in contrast to Clinton’s calmer approach. He had a habit of narrowing his eyes and his gestures were staccato and started close to his body, before chopping out to the sides. These remove the sense of openness and direct communication with his audience. He also uses a ‘stop’ gesture with his palms flat out at the audience.
  • His content showed less planning than Clinton, often repeating the same soundbite rather than building a structured argument. His non-sequiturs and tangents even drew laughter from the debate audience at times:

    TRUMP: So we have to get very, very tough on cyber and cyber warfare. It is – it is a huge problem. I have a son. He's 10 years old. He has computers. He is so good with these computers, it's unbelievable. The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough. And maybe it's hardly doable.
  • Trump also interrupted Clinton or the chair no fewer than 51 times – not only is this a rude tactic, it is usually ineffective. In Trump’s case, it merely gave Clinton the opportunity to show how well she could deal with the attempted derailments.

Overall, Trump appeared erratic, out of control and lacking positive energy. In delivery and communication terms, this first debate was undoubtedly a big win for Clinton.

See our blogs on the UK election debates here (Nicola Sturgeon, Natalie Bennett and Leanne Woods) and here (David Cameron, Ed Milliband and Nick Clegg).


Second debate – Sunday 9 October

It was a frosty opening for the second debate, without the customary handshake. Both candidates looked tired as they entered this gladiatorial arena.

Rule number one for politicians (or wannabe politicians): Learn from actor training and know that you are on stage all the time! That means no down time – and none of the pursed lips, unfocused eyes, hovering and pacing in the background from Trump while Clinton was speaking, described by many on social media as ‘creepy’.

Donald Trump

  • Trump appeared lethargic and de-energised as he walked onto the stage. He looked straight ahead, as if displaying tunnel vision, which made him look less comfortable than Clinton who took in the whole room.
  • The sniffing continued! (Even Larry the Cat has a view on this @Number10cat…) Trump tends to grab quick inhales of breath through the nose, holding his breath high and sounding combative. Vocally, Trump once again demonstrated a lack of range and spoke largely in a monotone.
  • His body language similarly lacked energy, spending most of the debate either pacing around the stage in the background or slumped against his stool. While in the first debate he displayed hyperactive body language, here his delivery was wooden for the most part. We were very aware of the mic when Trump was speaking, as he handled it clumsily – it had more ‘presence’ than it should during his responses.
  • While Trump appeared better prepared than last time, he did not show adequate contrition in regards to the footage of his comments about women. By using pronouns (‘she’ and ‘her’) when referring to Clinton instead of her name, he appeared disrespectful and dismissive. His remark ‘I cannot believe I'm saying that about myself, but I guess I am a politician’ demonstrated his stream-of-consciousness thought as opposed to careful preparation and undermined his position on the stand. (Margaret Thatcher’s remark comes to mind: ‘Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't.’)

Hillary Clinton:

  • On her entrance, Clinton took the lead by walking slightly ahead and turning to acknowledge all of the audience, using her peripheral vision well. She understands the importance of camera angles and made sure Trump was visible in the background while she was speaking.
  • In contrast to Trump, Clinton handled the mic with ease so we barely noticed its presence. She moved it fluidly from one hand to another as she spoke, meaning her range of gestures was not impeded. Clinton continued to use clear and decisive gestures, in particular one that has become particularly associated with her – the ‘hand on heart’ gesture. It is a difficult gesture to fake, as the movement has to occur a split second before the word is spoken, but Clinton uses it effectively to suggest that something really matters to her: ‘I want to be the President for all Americans’.
  • Clinton’s body language was once again solid, her stance centred and open and her composure presidential. When she moved it was always towards the audience and with purpose and effect. Her facial expressions demonstrate her calmness in the face of interruption and personal attacks: she is able to pause, give a slight smile and continue without becoming flustered. The pause enables her to gather her thoughts instead of giving an instant emotional response and her ability to withstand Trump’s 18 interruptions demonstrates confidence and gravitas and to not be easily swayed in adversity.
  • Content-wise, Clinton’s experience in politics showed through. She turned her 30 years of public service experience into an asset (‘Right out of law school I went to work for the Children’s Defense Fund… I started off as a young lawyer working against discrimination against African-American children in schools and in the criminal justice system', and later, 'four hundred pieces of legislation have my name on it’). She also cleverly allied herself with Michelle Obama, quoting her powerful put-down: ‘When they go low, you go high’.

While Trump appeared to have put in more rehearsal and preparation this time, and despite the personal and aggressive tone of the debate, in communication and presentation this was another overall win for Clinton.

Related courses: Courses for individuals