The 2012 US Presidential Debates- The most public interview process in the world.

One of the most strategic jobs in the world up for grabs is that of the President of the United States. The political debates can be viewed as a series of job interviews that give the final candidates an opportunity to sell themselves to voters (selectors) on why they should be chosen for the job. The outcome of these debates/interviews help those in the selection process form an opinion on who they think would be the best candidate for the role.

As with every, interview body language plays a role in influencing how we are perceived. Our body language provides insights into our true feelings. In some cases body language may even have a bigger influence on perceived outcome than what’s actually being said. These public interviews/debates are a great platform to gain insights on how body language influences opinions on perception of job fit. During the interviews/debates the incumbents were judged on their posture, how they sat, amount of eye contact and the way they engaged with the audience.

So let’s take a closer look at each interview/debate to understand the role body language played for each candidate on forming opinions of success or failure.

Public Interview #1 (Debate 1):

The two candidates conducted the interviews behind podiums answering questions by a single interviewer. Each candidate took a very different approach to the interview.

Governor Romney’s posture projected him a leader. He stood tall and appeared relaxed and comfortable when responding to questions. He made direct eye contact with the interviewer, camera and other candidate. If he disagreed with something he would shake his head and smile when the other candidate was responding to a question. This made him appear confident, trustworthy and genuine.

President Obama on the other hand seemed to take a more passive approach during the interview. His posture seemed tired, and listless. He avoided eye contact and looked down at the podium frequently as he struggled to answer some of the questions. This made him appear insecure, uncertain, and disengaged.

Based solely on body language many people were left with a positive and confident impression of Governor Romney. Various media sites deemed him to be the front runner and “winner” of this first interview. Those in the selection process (voters) also responded favorably as his net favorability rating shot up 5 points.  

Public Interview # 2 (Debate #2):

This interview gave both men the opportunity to demonstrate their presentation, public speaking and engagement skills by coming out from behind the podium and interacting with the interviewers and each other. The setting represented more of a panel approach to interviewing, where the moderator played the role of the lead interviewer, and the panel (audience) also had an opportunity to directly ask questions to each incumbent.

The interview appeared to be more engaged than the previous one, with each candidate trying to exert themselves. Both candidates walked comfortably around the stage, had direct eye with their interviewers, panel and each other. Both also smiled at the panel interviewers and responded to questions confidently and firmly.

Governor Romney’s body language was more animated than his competitor with grand hand gestures.  He would look directly at the President when answering or confronting him often turning his back to the audience in a closed manner. In instances where he was corrected by the moderator he tried to remain poised but his facial expressions saw him swallowing which showed uneasiness.

President Obama’s body language showed more confidence and ease during this interview round. He had smaller gestures and frequently smiled as he sat on his stool in a relaxed way listening to answers by his opponent. When questioned by the Governor he responded by facing the audience and answering the question instead of facing the Governor. This portrayed openness and transparency.

The general consensus was the interview seemed well matched with President Obama being much more engaged in this round. The media declared a slight advantage for President Obama. The change his in engagement resulted in an increase in the favorability polls equalizing the candidates.

Public Interview # 3 (Debate #3)

There was much anticipation about the final interview round. Both candidates had one last public opportunity to demonstrate to voters (selectors) who should be chosen as the successful incumbent for the position. The forum of the interview was much like the first interview where candidates were asked specific questions by a single interviewer.

Governor Romney took a more melancholy approach to the interview. He had a canned smile on his face which he wore throughout the entire interview. When listening to the President he seemed to blink quite frequently which conveyed he was overwhelmed or out of his depth. In some instances he licked his lips and swallowed uneasily demonstrating uncertainty. His overall disposition seemed calm and demure.

The President on the other hand appeared much more serious and focused. His facial expression offered very little smiling. When he disagreed with his opponent he would shake his head to show disapproval. In some instances he appeared stern knitting his brows and narrowing his eyes as he corrected answers or defended himself.  When his opponent would speak he would often stare directly at him in a direct manner.

The media was quick to focus on the two vastly different sets of behaviors the two candidates exhibited. Based on the body language analysis the results were unanimous that President Obama had won the third debate. His confident and authoritative approach seemed to resonate with those who would make the final selection decision. The popularity polls showed the President was able to gain a few more points over his competitor.

So what lessons can we take from these three extremely public interviews? Hopefully none of us will ever have to co-interview with the other finalist candidate in the same room! However, these interviews tell us how behavioral cues influence opinions which impact decision making in a selection process. Here are some body language lessons from the interviews above:

If you are on a panel interview, never turn your back on others to answer one person’s questions. Answer your questions to the panel, not just the person asking the question.

Make eye contact (don’t stare) when you answer a question. Averting your gaze makes you seem less certain and trustworthy.

Smile now and then to assure the interviewer that you understand what is being asked, as well as during your responses. This shows confidence.

Keep hand gestures small. Large hand gestures can be distracting.

Don’t speak over others

Ensure the interviewer has finished asking the question before you starting answering

Speak confidently and slowly, thinking through your answer.

Don’t fidget. It conveys nervousness and ultimately uncertainty.


  by Ann Barrett


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