With more than 67 million people watching the first debate between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney, the pressure was on Vice President Joseph Biden and Representative Paul Ryan to perform well today.
The role of nonverbal communication, specifically their gestures and facial expressions, played a critical role during the debate with Vice President Biden frequently losing control of his emotions with laughing outbursts, smiling, fidgeting, and looking away. He laughed and lost.
Addressing how each of the candidates performed, specifically non-verbally, is simple for many to do.
However, offering commentary grounded in research contributes to a greater validity of the information being shared and thus it allows a potential voter to more accurately discern the choice of having to pick between two candidates. Understanding the nonverbal cues also enables people to apply the provided information to their professional and social lives to be a more effective communicator.
CPR: charisma, professional, and rapport
The following analysis of Biden and Ryan’s nonverbal communication is based on my CPR Model: Charisma, Professionalism, and Rapport (further explained here). Briefly, charisma is having the ability to motivate, attract, and influence others; professionalism includes being prepared, having confidence, and possessing an expertise in the topic being discussed; and rapport includes mutual attentiveness, coordination, and positivity.
The premise of CPR is that these qualities are primarily displayed and created through nonverbal channels.
Gaffes, visual aids and baggy clothing
Coming into today’s debate, each participant entered with their own nonverbal communication baggage.
Vice President Biden’s gaffes are well known (see TIME magazine’s list), while Ryan, the policy wonk, had to do without his graphs and charts to explain complex content.
Additionally, it seems he needs to pay closer attention to the sizing of his clothes (as detailed by New York Times, LA Times, and Washington Post).
Biden laughs, Ryan holds it together
It was suggested that in order for Biden to win, he would have to have sharp, simple, and direct attacks when challenging Ryan. Biden did go after Ryan repeatedly, yet he also repeatedly lost his composure.
The video below is an example of Biden not being able to control his emotions. The result is him not being charismatic, professional, or building rapport with the audience.
Although Biden lost due to his lack of control, Ryan’s baseline while listening was a constant smirk which has a negative connotation. My colleague Maggie Pazian, facial expression expert, had this to say about Paul Ryan when I asked her for comment:
He had a baseline smirk throughout the debate and particularly when listening to Biden. Dimpling the lip corners in a constant posed smile-like expression lacks the genuine emotional connection and authenticity. This over controlled expression could be a contributing factor to what some are already are calling Ryan’s “robotic” performance.
Ryan won for two reasons.
First, because Biden lost.
Second, despite his smirk, Ryan maintained control of his emotions overall, used congruent gestures, spoke in a tone and speed that was clear and calm, and presented himself more professionally. The following video displays Ryan’s ability to present with control, and Biden’s lack of it.
Considering many readers of this article will not be able to vote in this election, the value of this analysis is that it allows readers to apply this to their own lives and become a more effective communicator.
Remember, when it comes to nonverbal communication, people’s perception is always more important than what you intended.