5 Lessons From Obama’s Debate Trainers To Improve Your Public Speaking Skills

If you want to improve your presentation skills, honest feedback is your new best friend. Here are five crucial lessons Obama learned after botching a 2012 debate.

5 Lessons From Obama’s Debate Trainers To Improve Your Public Speaking Skills
[Image: Flickr user Chuck Hagel | Photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo]

Remember Barack Obama’s dismal showing in the first debate of last year’s presidential campaign? He seemed weary and detached, and his comments came off as passive, rambling, and didactic.


But less than two weeks later, President Obama gave an energetic, focused, and engaged performance.

How was he able to make such a dramatic shift in delivery? In their new book, Double Down, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann provide a behind-the-scenes account of Obama’s training for that all-important second debate.

Use the following five lessons from Obama’s training camp the next time you’re prepping for a presentation:

1. Admit you need help.

It’s impossible to get fixed if we don’t think we need fixing. Acknowledging shortfalls is the first step toward becoming a stronger presenter.

After the first debate, Obama readily confessed to his team that he had problems to overcome. “I wasn’t good, and I know that,” he said.


“It’s easy for me to slip back into what I know, which is basically to dissect arguments. I think when I talk. It can be halting. I start slow. It’s hard for me to just go into my answer.”

Recognizing these shortcomings gave Obama and his coaches a firm foundation for developing a more compelling presentation.

2. Forage for feedback.

Good presenters don’t totally rely on their own assessments of themselves. Instead, they seek honest feedback from trusted friends, co-workers, and family members. After each practice debate, Obama solicited opinions from his trainers, and they responded with honest feedback.

“We’re not going to get there by continuing to grind away and marginally improve,” lead debate coach Ron Klain told him after one lackluster rehearsal. “This is not about changing the words in your debate book…this is about style, engagement, speed, presentation, attitude.”

3. Keep it simple.

When presenters know their subject matter inside and out, it’s tempting to over-analyze, digress, or drone on about minor details.


But powerful presenters find ways to narrow the focus and use tricks to help stay on track.

As debate day approached, Klain gave Obama a “debate-on-a-page”–a single piece of paper underscoring key points.

The one-pager included Must Remember items (“engage the audience,” “don’t chase rabbits,” “passion for people and plans”), Best Hits (“preexisting and ER,” “women’s health,” “Romney + China outsourcing”) and Rebuttal Cheat Sheet (“energy – coal plant is a killer,” “gridlock – Romney brings the lobbyist back,” “jobs: the 1-point plan”).

And during final rehearsals, the debate team used catchphrases to keep Obama from backsliding. “Fast and hammy! Fast and hammy!” Klain would shout when Obama’s delivery became glum.

4. Chill out and sleep in.

Like athletes, good presenters understand the value of receiving rest, replenishment, and nourishment before taking the stage.


But Obama and his team overlooked that regimen when preparing for the first debate. He had arrived late in Denver, giving his body little time to adjust to the altitude. He stuffed down a rushed, unappetizing dinner. And before bedtime, he became agitated when he couldn’t reach his daughters by phone. “He seemed overscheduled, over-coached, and under-rested,” write Halperin and Heilemann.

So as training began for debate number two, Michelle Obama reminded trainers that her husband’s frame of mind was directly affected by food, downtime, exercise, sleep, and lodging.

“If the president wants our chef there, he should be there,” she said. “If he wants Marty Nesbitt [Obama’s best friend from Chicago] there, he should be there.”

Consequently, the team carefully managed every detail, making sure Obama was unhurried, relaxed, and refreshed in days leading up to the debate.

5. Practice, practice, practice.

When it comes to winning presentations, “winging it” simply doesn’t fly. Strong speakers diligently practice for each event.


Yet practice had not been a priority for the first debate. In fact, Obama had ducked training whenever possible, even escaping for a day to visit Hoover Dam. But things were different for the second debate. Obama stuck to schedule and was conscientious about his rehearsals, refusing even brief breaks for walks.

“He brought a new energy and focus to his afternoon drills,” write Halperin and Heilemann. “When he delivered an imperfect answer, he stopped himself short: ‘Let’s do that again.’”

About the author

Sam Harrison is a popular speaker and author on creativity-related topics and presentation skills. His books include IdeaSpotting: How to Find Your Next Great Idea, IdeaSelling: Successfully Pitch Your Creative Ideas to Bosses, Clients and Other Decision Makers and Zing!: Five Steps and 101 Tips for Creativity on Command