McCain’s October 15, 2008 Debate Performance: Blinking, Grimacing, Stumbling, Stiffening Up…. The Top Four Ways He Can Improve

Why do 58% of respondents in the October 15, 2008 CNN poll think that Senator Barack Obama won the third presidential debate held that same day with Senator John McCain?

In my book, Say It Like Obama: the Power of Speaking with Purpose and Vision (McGraw Hill, 2008 -, I highlight the many techniques and practices that can enable speakers to use oration as a powerful tool. In the October 15 debate, Senator Obama did many things right. But more importantly, McCain did enough things wrong that he failed to sway voters during the debate. Here are four top ways McCain could have improved his performance:

First, McCain blinks an awful lot. It is not clear to me if there is a physical reason for this, but many people have (fortunately or unfortunately) been taught to believe that when people lie, they blink their eyes more than normal. Rapidly blinking eyes send a negative impression, similar to when someone displays "shifty eyes" or refuses to look others in the eyes. This was one of the most striking performance differences between the two presidential candidates, and one that—though it may sound small—can have profound influence on the perceptions formed among viewers. Take a look at the footage again—you will see what I mean.

McCain displayed those blinking eyes in the first ten minutes of the debate and the rapid blinking continued at various points throughout the debate. What made McCain’s blinking eyes even more noticeable was the manner in which the TV cameras sometimes cut immediately to Obama or used a split screen, because there was no excessive blinking on Obama’s part. What’s more, Obama has very large eyes and there they were—big, clear, open, the things that make people: "honest." I issue no verdict about which candidate was being more straightforward or which put more spin on their remarks. It’s up to individuals to determine that. But the body language the candidates sent conveyed two distinct messages.

Second, McCain displayed facial expressions that reinforce the idea that he is "angry" and a "hothead." His bottom lip often tensed up, like he was grinding his jaw or barely able to contain bitter words. His brow would furrow, as if he was beginning to seethe. His shoulders stiffened up at times and he’d subsequently pull back from the table—hostile gestures. Do I think McCain is really is a hothead ready to blow? I think such assertions are exaggerated. But if my belief is correct, then there is a big disconnect with what McCain’s body language conveyed. It’s a notable problem that needs correction.

Third, McCain seemed to get too emotional at too many points. Emotion displayed at inappropriate times make leaders look weak, not empathetic. One commentator suggested McCain at times looked like he was managing his anger. He seemed at other times to wear emotion on his sleeve, wanting hurt feelings to be acknowledged. Such over-abundant display of emotions can lead viewers to think a leader will allow emotions to cloud their judgment or actions. That’s not a way to appear "presidential"—something both candidates needed to do during the debates.

Finally, McCain seemed to stumble over his words at unfortunate moments when he needed to deliver remarks in a firm, commanding, assured manner. This was particularly notable at the end of the debate, during his closing remarks.


Dr. Shel Leanne is author of Say It Like Obama: the Power of Speaking with Purpose and Vision (McGraw Hill, 2008 - and President of Regent Crest, a leadership development firm whose clients come from Fortune 500 companies.

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