The first presidential debate on Sept. 29, 2020 will not be remembered for either candidates’ ideas or outlining of proposed policies. Instead, it was a highly contentious argument rife with personal insults and constant interruption. ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos, who has moderated and covered presidential debates and has also been a White House adviser and prepared candidates for presidential debates, called it “the worst presidential debate I have ever seen.” While devoid of messaging and policies from the candidates, the chaos — and how both candidates dealt with it — does offer some salient lessons on communication and leadership.
They’re the kind of lessons that can help anyone in the business world who wants to be heard when surrounded by a din of distraction, but they apply especially well to professionals in the diversity space. Since protests against George Floyd’s murder began in June 2020, the demand for chief diversity officers (CDOs) has grown exponentially, but so has the position’s turnover. Getting your message across as someone whose job it is to stand up for those who are not in the room is a fight for power that in many ways parallels the world of politics. Amid chaos and contention, communicating effectively in the interests of those you are advocating for is crucial.
Lesson 1: Stay on topic and focus on those you’re serving — not yourself.
The hallmark of the debate was interruptions and personal attacks that served as an attempt to derail the conversation. At several points, President Trump and former Vice President Biden got into arguments that muddled and obscured responses to the original questions that moderator Chris Wallace posed. At one point in particular, a question about the Supreme Court became a conversation about COVID-19.
Biden’s body language tactic of facing the camera and speaking directly to viewers demonstrated his attempts at getting the conversation back on track and focusing on those whom the election will most directly affect. Know the groups you’re serving and what’s important to them. Demonstrate that knowledge and make clear that you intend to advocate for them.
Personal attacks — known as ad hominem attacks — are often regarded in the study of rhetoric as ineffective because they draw attention away from the issue at hand. Whether you’re a political candidates or a diversity leader, remember that the focus of the message you’re trying to get across is not you, or even the person trying to discredit you. Your mission is to advocate for those who are not in the room.
Lesson 2: You can’t predict or control how others will argue. Stand your ground and don’t take the bait.
Biden’s tactic of barely making eye contact with Trump and laughing off some of his personal jabs gained attention from analysts. Whether truly effective or not, this tactic was a way of ignoring and not responding to arguments that would derail and discredit the conversation.
Whether founded or unfounded, personal attacks like those about Biden’s son Hunter being addicted to drugs, or Biden himself graduating law school toward the bottom of his class are largely irrelevant to conversations about political division and socialized health care.
People will try to discredit any leader they disagree with but remember those who these decisions truly affect and keep conversations focused on the end goal. Your job isn’t always to persuade your opponents, but rather to engage those you serve.
Lesson 3: Stick to data. Winding anecdotes and vague declarations are usually ineffective.
Proven facts and clear, concise data speak for themselves and therefore don’t require rhetorical embellishments. For example, the business case for diversity is made simply by the fact that diverse teams achieve better bottom lines for their companies than non-diverse teams — just as the case for wearing masks and social distancing that Biden brought up, which has been widely vetted by scientists who estimate that 100,000 lives could be saved from COVID-19 if the public committed to it.
Lesson 4: Play to your strengths and lead; don’t be led.
Some expressed disappointment that Biden did not snap back at Trump’s pointed personal attacks. But in reality, Biden is not exactly lauded as an expert in pithy comebacks and thinking on his feet. His decision to play it safe argumentatively, but tap into his strengths by breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the American people gained recognition from opinion writers and analysts.
One commentator, Joanna Weiss for WBUR wrote in her analysis, “Biden isn’t, and never has been, an eloquent orator. His policies won’t please everyone. But empathy is his strength.”
As a diversity leader, remember that you should take time to reflect on your own strengths and weaknesses and what can help you to best hold your ground rhetorically. Being led by an opponent into a conversation you are not equipped to have can lead to gaffes. Choose your own talking points and methods and stick to them.
Lesson 5: Manage your bias yet remain teachable.
Three white men discussing the issue of race during the debate didn’t sit well with many opinion writers and commentators on Twitter. Regardless, white men and women continue to hold positions of power both in companies and in politics. It is important to recognize your own blind spots, biases and shortcomings and solicit help from experts in areas you are not well-versed in.
Recognize privileges as well. Women — especially women of color — often do not have the ability to yell or argue back at opponents who interrupt and belittle them without being labelled as “too angry” or “too emotional.” Different responses to attacks have different perceptions based on who delivers them. Leaders of all kinds need coaching and advising from people with a wide array of perspectives.
Lesson 6: Prepare, prepare, prepare!
Just as political candidates have teams preparing them for debates, corporate and diversity leaders should also have coaches to prepare them for managing teams and having tough discussions. No one has expertise in every area they’ll need to address. Coaches and teams help prepare leaders to be spokespeople for their cause. Politicians often have teams of advisers behind them, helping them strategize the best ways to get their messages across.
Advisers and coaches help leaders break out of echo chambers and identify with new perspectives. It never hurts to hone your skills.
While the first presidential debate of the 2020 election is widely regarded as chaotic, it serves as a lesson in juggling chaotic and contentious moments. Even after the question of the efficacy of these debates came to light after the Sept. 29 showdown, both candidates have decided to continue to participate in the final two debates before the Election Day in November. The next presidential debate will take place Oct. 15,2020 in Miami.
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