Body Language Lessons From the Republican Debate

I was going to watch the first Republican debate anyway, but when CNN’s Gary Tuchman called and wanted me to watch it with him and comment – in order to provide a 3-minute segment on Anderson Cooper 360 Friday night – well, that sounded like more fun than chewing marbles and I couldn’t resist.

The ground rules were no politics, no rhetorical analysis (because all rhetoric is political) – just body language. And my immediate caveat is an important one to repeat here: we humans are much better at reading the body language of people we know well than people we don’t. That’s because we establish a base line of behavior with people we see often, and we notice the variations.

With relative strangers, it’s harder to tell if a particular twitch is base line or a strong indicator of some emotion. So my readings need to be taken with a giant pinch of the proverbial salt.

All that said, it was great fun to watch 10 people make their case to the American electorate – 10 people under enormous pressure, extremely high stakes, and very bright lights.

And that, of course, is why it is interesting to study body language in situations like the debate. We’re bound to see some fascinating behavior because people do reveal things under stress. But remember the caveat – these five lessons are provisional only, given my relative lack of familiarity with the candidates in questions.

OK, no more equivocation. Here are my five body language lessons from the first debate of the 2016 Presidential election season.  These lessons will be useful for anyone under stress, or lights, or scrutiny.

1. Come out strong. There’s no question in my mind that Donald Trump was the dominant figure in the debate in terms of body language, and he took charge right from the very start by being the only one to raise his hand in response to the question about supporting the eventual nominee.

Again, I’m not taking a position on the politics. Please, skip the hate mail. I’m just saying that Mr. Trump sucked most of the air out of the room by beginning with a strong emotion and a willingness to stand alone. On television, strong emotions play well; gentler emotions get run over. Mr. Trump’s take-no-prisoners approach to the moderators and his competitors meant that he was the most charismatic figure on the stage. Remember: charisma = focused emotion.

Mr. Trump was the most focused.

2. Everyone gets nervous. It’s what you do with it that counts. Governor Kasich took the longest to settle his nerves and give an emotionally consistent answer. The result? In body language terms, he looked weak. The problem with showing nerves is two-fold. First, you look timid, and everyone knows that the Commander-in-Chief needs to be cool, not timid, under pressure.

Second, you look inconsistent – and that’s potentially more serious. We want to know, can we trust this person who’s claiming our vote? And in the short run, our test for trust is consistency – of content and body language, words and emotion. So, if you say, I strongly believe in this policy or that idea, but you look nervous, it looks inconsistent, and we don’t trust you.

Of course, we expect people to start out a little nervous – that’s only human. But we also expect you to settle down after a few minutes, because that’s also human. So if you don’t get there after an answer or two, we start to wonder what’s wrong.

3. Don’t defer. One of the most interesting body language ‘tells’ of the night came from Governor Bush. In one of his first answers, he talked about his father and brother. When he mentioned both of them, he tipped his head to one side – a sign of deference.

Now, it’s natural for Governor Bush to defer to his father and brother – both have been presidents, after all. But deference doesn’t look like strength, and we typically look for strength from our candidates in these debates. Especially if you’re trying to differentiate yourself from nine other strong leaders. So for an early answer to be deferential is a strategic and body language mistake.

4. Don’t forget to breathe. One of the subtlest and most important signs of strength and authority comes from the voice. When we get nervous, we tend to breathe in shallow gasps, or forget to breathe at all. The result is that the voice gets strangled or nasal – or both. Dr. Carson’s voice was both strangled and nasal, and it undercut his authority.

To sound in charge, you have to breathe deeply from your diaphragm and support your voice.

5. Gesture first, then speak. One of the most dramatic gestures of the night came from Governor Walker, who was discussing babies and abortion. He cupped his hands together as if cradling a tiny child. It was a visually arresting gesture, and would have been very effective if it had come in the right sequence. The way our brains work is that we gesture first, when we’re doing it naturally, then speak, because gestures come from the unconscious mind.

Governor Walker was thinking consciously about his gesture, so it came a split second after he started talking about abortion. The result was that the gesture looked fake. If you want to look real, gesture first – then speak.

There were many, many more lessons in body language, both good and bad, from the first Republican debate. I’m embedding the CNN clip which addresses a few more of those, below, so that you can get a flavor of what we talked about. The good news, for body language nerds like me, is that the 2016 election season has begun, and that means many opportunities to learn from the best and the worst of body language under stress. Stay tuned!

Click here for the link to my analysis of body language in the debate.

About the Author:

Dr. Nick Morgan is one of America’s top communication theorists and presentation skill coaches. In his blog he covers modern communications from a variety of angles, including the latest developments in communication research, the basic principles and rules of good communication and the good and bad speakers of the day. For more information about his coaching services or books, visit

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