The Subtle Ways Candidates Look Spontaneous (Or Fail To) During Debates

To varying degrees, the U.S. presidential contenders use these two patterns to avoid seeming canned.

The Subtle Ways Candidates Look Spontaneous (Or Fail To) During Debates


When we go to a play on Broadway, we expect to see a great performance. We want the stars to be well-rehearsed. But when we watch political debates, we usually have the opposite expectation. We want our candidates to seem more candid than canned–spontaneous, not staged.

In the two most recent debates, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and Marco Rubio each worked a few subtle patterns into their performances in order to appear more spontaneous–some more frequently than others. Here are two of those habits to look for in tonight’s debate (and later on the campaign trail) as the presidential contenders do their best to seem polished yet authentic.

Verbal Contrast

One of the qualities that set Michael Jordan apart from any other player in the NBA was his timing. He could run, jump, and shift positions in mid-air. When you speak spontaneously, you also have those sudden “jump-shift” moments. You suddenly change pace and create a sharp break in energy, sometimes with more emotion or passion, and your audience picks up on that contrast. So if you want to communicate spontaneity, you need to shift gears suddenly, like Mike.

In the last Democratic debate in Milwaukee, I noticed that Bernie Sanders uses jump-shifts quite a bit. One of them comes when Sanders is discussing criminal justice reform. Beginning at 24:00, he says, “The truth is that far more blacks get stopped for traffic violations. The truth is that sentencing for blacks is higher than for whites. We need fundamental police reform . . . ” then shifts and says more emphatically, “Clearly, clearly” as he starts his next sentence. That jolt in emphasis conveys spontaneity.

Clinton uses this type of verbal contrast less frequently, but one strong jump-shift comes as she’s discussing the imprisonment rates of African Americans in Wisconsin, beginning at 24:57. After she says, “The statistics from Wisconsin are particularly troubling, because it is the highest rate of incarceration for African Americans in our nation—twice the national average,” then slows down abruptly and becomes strikingly somber when discussing the death of Dontre Hamilton.

During the Republican debate in South Carolina, Donald Trump made many jump-shifts. At 5:06, he says, “In times of delay, we could have a Diane Sykes, or you could have a Bill Pryor, we have some fantastic people. But this is a tremendous blow to conservativism. It’s a tremendous blow . . . ” then breaks his rhythm and adds more quickly, “. . . frankly, to our country.” That subtle shift in cadence makes him sound, well, frank.


Marco Rubio uses jump-shifts less frequently, but he does have a few moments of contrast that communicate spontaneity. One of these moments came at 18:40 when he briefly shifts gears while discussing Syria to say, “You looked at the pictures—I saw the same images people saw. I’m the father of children,” moving from an emphatic, “I saw the same images” to a much quieter, more personal “I’m the father of children.” That contrast suggested that the thought occurred to him spontaneously and came from the heart.

Quick-Changing Facial Expressions

Facial expressions can also convey spontaneity, depending especially on how long you sustain them. When your facial expressions come and go rapidly, you often appear less scripted and controlled. When you hold your facial expressions for long intervals, though—or worse, complete facial freeze, something many leaders suffer—you’re more likely to be seen as rigid and unnatural. No matter what expression you make, shorter is usually better when it comes to appearing spontaneous.

On the Democratic side, Sanders made frequent, spontaneous expressions throughout the last debate. This is especially evident at 1:35:50, after Clinton questions his support for President Obama. His frustrated grin is clearly a spontaneous response to Clinton’s jab.

Clinton’s facial expressions aren’t as varied as Sanders’s, but one example of spontaneity comes at 16:44, after she is asked about Madeleine Albright’s comment that “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women.” She breaks into a glowing, amused smile before relaxing and calmly answering the question.

During the GOP debate, Donald Trump’s expressions are very often varied and change quickly. That was easy to spot during his back-and-forth with Jeb Bush and the subsequent comments he directed at the audience, starting at 24:20. On multiple occasions, he shows visible disdain for Bush, as well as a couple of mocking, sarcastic looks at the audience.

Marco Rubio’s expressions are far more controlled and sustained, but he seems to loosen up a bit during his heated exchange with Ted Cruz, starting at the 58:00 mark in the last debate. In fact, the sardonic “You’re so full of it” smile he flashes is something that more than a few of the candidates use (see Sanders above) in order to seem like they’re rolling with the punches. Rubio grins, gets serious again, then gives a quick shrug to show his candid frustration with Cruz.


No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, spontaneity is crucial for building trust. So pay attention to the amount of verbal contrast and quick facial expressions the candidates use in the next debates. And work them into your own speaking, too. They’ll help you seem more genuine and spontaneous–and less like a politician.

About the author

Anett Grant is the CEO of Executive Speaking, Inc. and the author of the new e-book, CEO Speaking: The 6-Minute Guide. Since 1979, Executive Speaking has pioneered breakthrough approaches to helping leaders from all over the world--including leaders from 61 of the Fortune 100 companies--develop leadership presence, communicate complexity, and speak with precision and power.