Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Debate of the Century: Public Speaking 101

By Margaret Curtis, PhD

One after another, commentators on the Debate of the Century—so far—remark that Obama kept his eyes down during his first confrontation on a stage with Mitt Romney. They can call this behavior anything they like, but it reeks of failing Speech 101. No successful undergraduate leaves that class with an A for refusing to make eye-contact.

Anybody who watches the crime shows on TV also knows what this behavior means: During interrogations of suspects, police cajole, yell, or whisper: “LOOK AT ME!”

Animal psychologists can also tell any interested parties: An aggressor conveys his/her intentions by glaring straight at his enemy. Stare back if you’re ready for a fight!

Of course, if you don’t want a fight, don’t return that stare—even to a cat or dog, who’s never taken Speech 101—because, the minute you do, they’re likely to charge right at you.

In this context, the audience always loses interest when a speaker fails the eye-contact test. Quite rightly, they expect a speaker to engage them—an eye for an eye is the absolute rule.

That look by a speaker says as much as all his words, memorized or spontaneous. It says: I am ready to meet you—come hell or high water—at the deli, the mall, or the boxing ring. You choose.

A President of the United States who cannot look his competition in the eye tells all observers that he will not meet Congress, the Senate, or World Leaders—good or evil—for eye combat either. He may be off his game. He may forget his game. But, sure as day follows night, if he cannot stand straight and lift his eyes, he is not game for the biggest fight of his life.

He may look down out of fear, which an opponent smells faster than sweat. He may avoid confrontation, but, if that desire rules, what is he doing on stage? Why race around the country, assuring voters he’s the man for the job? THIS JOB—the Presidency of the US—comes with numerous debts. Not a single US check or bond can compensate voters for backing a loser. 

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