3 Things I Learned from The Presidential Debate

The race for the White House is one of the most “dramatic” events out there.  And if you think there are a lot of Producers on Broadway shows, imagine how many “Producers” there are of these two campaigns.  With those kinds of similarities to what we do, you can bet I tuned in to what was being said (and what was not being said) to see what I could learn from the two men that squared off on Wednesday night.

Here are three things I picked up from the Presidential debate:

1.  People Like A Fight

About 50 Million People tuned in to the debate.  I don’t have the stats, but I’d bet that a large chunk of that 50 mill has already made up their mind on who they are going to vote for (which is why the statistics say that debates don’t affect the outcome of elections) . . . but they tune in anyway.  Why?  They want to watch the good guy (whoever that is to that person) fight the bad guy.  It’s classic dramatic structure . . . protagonist versus antagonist.  A reminder to the dramatists out there to clearly define your characters, and also that mano-a-mano verbal sparring can be thrilling, even when we don’t understand half of what the characters are saying.  As long as we are rooting for them to beat the bad guy, we’re along for the ride.

2.  Take a Spinning Class

The greatest debaters are the ones that know how to morph the answer to the posed question into whatever talking point they want to push that day.  There is nothing more awkward than a bad spin.  But watching a politician do it well, is like listening to Patti LuPone sing “Meadowlark.”  You just say to yourself, “How do they do that!?”  Or better yet, you don’t even know they do it all.  As a Producer and a Marketer, getting the message you want out both in marketing but more importantly in the Press, takes master spinners.  And boy were both boys spinning hay into gold on Wednesday.

3.  You gotta know when to Break the Rules.

The first three minutes of every debate I’ve ever watched included a prologue by the (dry) moderator  who talked about the very strict format including how much time each candidate will have for their statements, and how these rules and regs were “agreed upon by both parties” in question.  And then I watched both candidates break those rules all night long.  And you know what?  If they’re not annoying about it, if it’s not egregious, it can be effective.  Getting ahead in business, especially when facing steep competition, is knowing when you have to color outside the lines.
There are two more Presidential Debates and one more for the VPs.  You can bet your deficit I’ll be tuning in . . . not only to watch the next leader of our nation, but also to pick up some tips on how I can lead my next production.


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  • Rich says:


    A few thoughts:

    1. “About 50 Million People tuned in to the debate… I don’t have the stats…”
    Credible reports indicate that actually, 67 MM viewers turned in, but hey, who’s counting?

    2. “The greatest debaters are the ones that know how to morph the answer to the posed question into whatever talking point they want to push that day…. And boy were both boys spinning hay into gold on Wednesday.”
    Let me respectfully suggest that while political spin always exists, it is at minimum when candidates have the opportunity to confront one another in an open forum, absent media bias & constraints. (Pres. Obama spoke 4 min more than Gov. Romney, so he wasn’t short-changed.)

    3. Breaking Rules-Perhaps an overly rigid debate agenda was abandoned, but hey, what’s not to like?
    Broadway should indeed take a lesson in terms of satisfying the consumer (voter).

  • Love the lessons you learned from the debate. May I offer an observation about an inaccuracy you and many people make about the Presidency. In your third point you said, “…you can bet your deficit I’ll be tuning in . . . not only to watch the next leader of our nation…”

    The President – while that person has a very important job – is NOT the leader of the nation. The President is “merely” the head of the Executive Branch of the government.

    I know you know there’s also the Legislative Brand, Judiciary Branch and let’s not forget the individual States. Together they make up the government.

    The President is not the emperor, not the king, not the “ruler of the nation.”

    We the people are the nation.

    Sure, it’s an often used short cut to bunch the “government” with the “nation,” but in my opinion it’s like sloppy writing. It makes for an ineffective second act.

    You just gave me an idea for my next play.

    Steve Hrehovcik

  • Yvette Heyliger says:

    Ken, I loved what you said, “…They want to watch the good guy (whoever that is to that person) fight the bad guy. It’s classic dramatic structure . . . protagonist versus antagonist.” What I love about this statement is that the good (or bad) guy is in the eye of the beholder. This idea fascinates me as playwright/producing artist. Additionally, I have been working on the political campaign of one of these men (I will remain nonpartisan in the spirit of the above quote). It takes a lot of work behind the scenes to arrive to the moment of the debate (or show). There are so many pieces to the political machine–from the grassroots phone banker, all the way up to the candidate himself. Everyone has to be “on message,” everyone has to embrace the vision for the country that the candidate has and let that guide you in everything you do. Of course, just as when producing a show there are creative differences, I’m sure not every volunteer or staffer agrees with everything but, in the end, it is the vision of the playwright (or some would argue, the director) that everyone must get behind. My experience volunteering has been invaluable. I’m with you, Ken. I will be looking more closely (though the lens of the campaign) to see at what tips I can pick up when writing or producing my next show.

  • diane uniman says:

    How right you are! Perfect analogy. The spinning aspect is brilliant. I demand a “smooth spinning” seminar! 🙂 That is something I have noticed in the past and marveled at. I never thought about the rule-breaking aspect, but you nailed it. I was wondering why it didn’t seem obnoxious to me. And I also realized it lent a subtle advantage. You put it correctly; it is an important skill for the competitive edge. The concomitant skill I realize-because you pointed it out- is knowing how not to go to far; otherwise people will get sour on the pugnacious pomposity of the protagonist. I gotta get me somma that!

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