56 Years Later: Richard Nixon’s TV Debate Lessons Still Need to be Learned

Tony Compton, Managing Director

Welcome to age of streaming media. Of video, and its importance to personal and corporate branding, credibility, marketing, and sales. Welcome to the age where there’s a television camera in every pocket.

56 years ago to this day, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy squared-off in a downtown Chicago television studio for a U.S. presidential debate that still has much to teach us. If only more executives, sales people, marketers, subject matter experts, and all those in public-facing positions were willing to watch, listen, and learn the lessons of Richard Nixon’s debate performance in 1960.

The Kennedy/Nixon debate was a first for American presidential politics. Nixon went on television that night with a five o’clock shadow. He didn’t shave and looked tired. Kennedy, the opposite. JFK cleaned up well, smiled for the cameras, and appeared presidential. While those listening to the debate on radio thought Nixon won, those watching TV thought Kennedy won.

Appearance 1, Content 0.

Richard Nixon lost the presidential election in 1960, but even he couldn’t have imagined that the lessons learned from his debate’s black-and-white television broadcast 56 years ago would have such relevancy in our high-definition, mobile, go-live anytime, anywhere, streaming media world of today.

Problem is, these lessons still go largely ignored:

The President of the United States takes personal communication seriously, and so should you.

You and I have sat through more boring, text-heavy, content data dumps in mind-numbing presentations that we’ve lost track of the messages, and their meaning. This includes convention speeches, conference sessions, webinars, conference calls, online videos, demos, and sales pitches. But many business leaders don’t pay attention to their personal communication skills. Too busy to spend their time, not important enough to invest. Plus, their communication skills are good enough. Just ask them.

Name somebody more important or busier than the president, and we can discuss this one.

How you look and how you sound during a presentation, or an on-camera appearance, is more important than your content.

Yes, content is important. But we’re judged on how we look and how we sound. If you’re not prepared on both of those fronts, your content will suffer. In 1960, Nixon’s beard made him look tired. During a presidential debate in 1992, George H.W. Bush looked at his watch – if only for a moment. But he camera caught it, and so did the audience. The impression was that President Bush had to be somewhere else and didn’t want to be at the debate. He lost that debate, and his bid to get re-elected. If you look or sound tired, distracted, or uninterested the audience will notice – even if you have great content.

Richard Nixon got feedback, you probably won’t.

One benefit then-Vice President Nixon had was feedback. Nixon learned very quickly that the way he looked on-camera had a negative impact on the way he was perceived by the audience. Chances are that your audiences aren’t nearly as large as the one that watched the Kennedy/Nixon debate. Moreover, your audiences are probably composed of your friends, family, colleagues, partners, sponsors, and producers who will either say nothing (out of fear) or tell you what you want to hear because they either want your participation or money. Bottom line is that if you turn in a mediocre, lackluster, or bad performance you probably won’t hear about it. And that’s much worse than getting the honest feedback Nixon got about his debate performance. Ask for honest feedback before and after a performance, and act on it.

The Camera Sees Everything.

The audience also sees everything.
The audience also hears everything.
You should care about those things.

Had a bad day before going on-camera? Nobody wants to hear it.
Got little sleep? Save it.
It’s late in the day and your plane was delayed? … so?
It’s been a long day on the trade show floor and your clothes were winkled, your hair was a mess, your voice was shot, and it was hot inside the convention hall? Tough.

All that matters is how you look and sound to the audience. The audience doesn’t care about anything that may have happened prior to your going on-camera, or on-stage. If you choose to step in front of the camera for any reason, take the responsibility for your communication skills and be prepared.

By the way, most of what you’re doing in front of the camera is being recorded. Once that happens, it’s too late. Digital recordings generally last forever, and you probably won’t be in control of the content.

A Video Camera in Every Pocket

Today, you can use any smartphone and hold a presidential debate anywhere. Same for any corporate on-camera activity. Difference between presidential candidates and business people is that the candidates will prepare before going on-camera, while many executives won’t. Time after time I’ve witnessed videos from good people at trade shows and corporate meetings that have produced disastrous results. The world of streaming video and social media demands that we’re prepared to go on-camera anytime, anywhere, whether we like it or not.

The weekend build-up before tonight’s debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. It surpasses any Super Bowl pre-game coverage I can remember, and the ratings for tonight’s event will be historic. If there ever was a time I could sell advertising time for any media outlet covering the debate, today would be that day.

The lessons learned from the Kennedy/Nixon debate have always been a part of my marketing, media, and broadcast background. And there’s a reason why we’re seeing so much of it in advance of tonight’s Trump/Clinton debate. Televised debates were new in 1960. Back then, few knew how to use video to their advantage. Most did not. The same lessons apply today to those downplaying or blatantly ignoring the importance of personal communication preparedness in our world of social media, streaming video, and presentation readiness.

The candidates are preparing to go on-camera for tonight’s debate because the American presidency depends on it, as does their vision for the future of the country. They would never make the same mistakes Richard Nixon made in 1960 before going on-camera, but you see those mistakes made with regularity in today’s business world.

Richard Nixon’s lessons in going on-camera still need to be learned, 56 years later.


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