Conveying the message

They say that words account for only 7% of the message you convey. The remaining 93% is non-verbal, being transmitted through the tone of your voice and your body language. I wonder what would have happened if yesterday, during the first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and his GOP rival, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney I put my TV on mute and reacted only to “non-verbal” messages emanating from the debaters. I must say that my conclusion would be different from the one expressed by the majority of pundits and the media: Romney has not won the debate.

True, President Obama looked absent, bored and tired – exactly like a man who has something more important to do than debating a guy who over the past 6 years has made himself a professional presidential candidate. Yet Romney, with a pleading expression on his face and elevated shoulders betraying pressure, came out as a kid desperately trying to persuade his suspicious parents that he had done his home work and can now go to play. If this, according to some analysts, means looking “presidential,” then someone has to explain me what the job of U.S. president is all about.

Naturally, I didn’t mute my TV, so in addition to the body language messages of the debaters, I could also hear the tone of their voice. And if the sound of Obama’s could certainly put me to sleep, I would have been prevented from dozing off by the nuisance of Romney’s pitched, word-compressed mini-monologues begging: “Listen to me…listen to me…listen to me.”

And then, of course, there were words. I’m someone who’s interested in politics and comfortable with relevant economic numbers. I can understand (and remember on November 6) Obama’s assertion – whether correct or false – that in addition to existing $2 trillion tax cut, Romney wants to impose another one worth of $5 trillion. Bad for him. But I had troubles to follow Romney’s non-ending arithmetic exercises, like telling us for how long we could run Medicare for the money Obama wants to invest in clean energy. Sounded to me like how many oranges you can buy for the money you won’t spend on apples. Well, perhaps folks voting for Romney have a better grasp of math then me. Who knows.

No, I won’t insist that Obama has won the debate – or even that he did well. Yet I doubt that the lack of sleep, energy or motivation – or his reported hatred of debates in general – can account for his lackluster performance. I suspect he was simply stunned – I was – by the easy with which Romney has suddenly abandoned his conservative credentials and was positioning himself as someone who could do better what Obama has been already doing:  perfecting the health-care law, polishing Dodd-Frank and tightening “smart” government regulations. It’s not easy to debate a “better” yourself, is it?

During his political career, Obama has debated many people of different political shapes, shades and stripes. But this is perhaps for the first time that he met such an ideologically omnivorous opponent like Romney, a man who hardly remembers – his passion for numbers notwithstanding – how many times he invented and reinvented and then re-reinvented himself. It’s tough to hit a moving ideological target. Yet Obama has no other choice. Voters have lousy memory and on November 6, they won’t remember Romney’s multiple reincarnations. They may enter voting booth with only one vague recollection of what Romney once said: more jobs. This might be enough to make Obama a one-time president.

Unless, of course he and his advisers believe that the voters react to only 7% of Romney’s political message.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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4 Responses to Conveying the message

  1. marknesop says:

    An excellent post as usual, Eugene, and one which goes firmly against the conventional wisdom – that being that Romney has finally found his groove and now will wipe the floor with Obama.

    You are right that not only does Romney continually reinvent himself, the electorate seems reluctant to call him on it. I wonder, though, how many will pull the lever for Romney (figuratively speaking) when they are alone in the voting booth with their conscience. Of course, there are elements of American society in which Obama is so detested that they would vote for Goebbels in full uniform before Obama. But they are generally not so numerous that they could carry the day alone. For that, they need the support of those who originally voted for Obama, but became discouraged with his failure to immediately turn the economy around and get safely back in happy-days-are-here-again territory within 6 months. I doubt many realize how difficult a task that really is, or what Romney’s plan – probably exacerbated by the adoption of the Ryan budget plan – would do to the prospects of recovery. Big Business loves the idea, because like the last crash, they’d be able to make a ton of money in the few months before the wheels came off again, and then sit on it until the opportunities to buy up distressed assets began to present themselves. But too few people ask themselves how rarely their own interests and the interests of corporate America coincide.

    For what it’s worth, I think Obama just got overconfident based on how briskly Romney was wrecking his own election prospects with the stupid things he said and did, and wrote him off as a buffoon he could debate without really trying. He should have noticed how many of those stupid things have passed without any serious discussion of their importance, and been alert that there are some important players out there who really, really want Romney to win.

    You can bet he will not make either mistake again. Because he will have to put Romney away decisively in the next debate in order to prevent him gaining any momentum. Up to the debate, Romney was not a serious threat, and if managed properly he never will be.

  2. Eugene says:

    Thanks Mark,

    You know this classic stuff: when a sitting president runs for re-election, the re-election inevitably becomes a referendum on this president. If voters approve of his job, the opponent has no chance of winning no matter how good the opponent might be. However, if the voters have problem with the incumbent, then he would lose – and all the opponent has to show is that he’s not a total moron.

    From this point of view, Obama may well lose his referendum, given the economic situation. But what has been helping him tremendously over the past few months was this uncertainty surrounding Romney. No, one can’t call him a moron, but there was something about him that made people uneasy, something that was making Obama a “lesser evil.”

    The problem with the “lost” debate is not that Romney presented a viable program; he’s got none. The problem is that he might have shown that he’s not a total moron. (Again, for this, words don’t matter; non-verbal communication does.) And if a fraction of undecided voters now suddenly concludes that Romney isn’t exactly a Goebbels, they may well go back to thinking about Obama’s economic record, spelling troubles for the latter.

    I think that if nothing dramatic happens during the second and third debates – as it likely will – then the crucial factor in the election will be the job report issued on November 3 or 4, right on the election eve. Should the unemployment rate stay below 9% or, better yet, fall below the current 8.7%, Obama will win. However, if the rate springs back to above 9%, Obama may be in trouble.


  3. Dear Eugene,

    I too add my congratulations to an excellent post.

    I remember every Presidential election since 1972 but in none has a candidate been so hard to place as Romney. He is the most perfect example I now of the chameleon in politics, able seemingly effortlessly to change colour depending on his background. The one thing I would say is that someone so shifting is presumably unlikely to have strong views on any subject. If so then a Romney Presidency would not be a rerun of Bush. Wishful thinking? I hope not.

    Incidentally am I not right in thinking that you are a citizen and resident of Massachusetts in which case you presumably have experience of Romney as your Governor?

  4. Eugene says:

    Dear Alexander,

    Thank you very much for your nice words.

    Yes, indeed, Romney was my governor and I actually voted for him. I must say, he wasn’t a bad governor, a personally honest man and an efficient manager in the remarkably corrupt and inefficient MA. Moreover, when he expressed his desire to run for presidency, I vowed to vote for him again. I will not, because even in a politician, I value some basic principles and beliefs, and Romney has none. Your description of him as “chameleon” is right on point.

    Unfortunately, that’s a reality of U.S. politics that you can’t be a Republican nominee without expressing conservative social views: anti-abortion, anti-gay-marriage, etc. I remember (what makes me a bad voter is my good memory:)) Romney challenging Ted Kennedy in MA senatorial race in 1994. Back then, Romney was trying to outpace the noted liberal Kennedy from the LEFT. In particular, he promised to MA sexual minorities that with him in the Senate, they’ll be better off than with Kennedy. I suspect Romney would give a lot to erase this record. The pattern repeated in 2008 when Romney was trying to outpace McCain from the RIGHT.

    As of today, I still believe that Obama will be re-elected, and that would be an end for Romney. Should, however, Romney win…Well, we’ll all have at least 4 years to figure out what kind of president he’ll be:)


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