Michael Bloomberg just spent an estimated $500 million over the past few months in an apparent bid to win the delegate rich territory of the American Samoa in what will likely top Doolittle as the most expensive flop of 2020.
What went wrong? Everybody seems to agree that Bloomberg’s disastrous debate performance doomed his candidacy. No argument there. With the benefit of hindsight, what should the popular three-term mayor have done differently on the debate stage?
I have spent 30 years researching what makes an effective presenter and then coaching a range of clients on how to communicate effectively. For years, communication experts have quoted a seminal 1967 study that only 7% of your message is based on what you say, and the rest on how you say it. I’d say the 7% is an overestimation—it’s likely 20% what and 80% how. That still leaves a giant impression that many political candidates (most notably Bloomberg) ignore at their peril.
Irrespective of what one thinks of stop-and-frisk or the use of NDAs to settle personnel disputes, Bloomberg exhibited a clear stylistic and messaging weakness by apologizing for his past. If the surprise ascension of President Donald Trump has taught us anything about communication in this era of a 24/7 social/media ecosystem, it is to affirmatively control your own message and never be on the defensive.
Pundits underestimate the importance of communication skills and overestimate the policy positions in understanding the success of Presidential aspirants. This is a contest where the better communicator/performer normally wins. Political scientists are still studying the Kennedy/Nixon debate of 1960, yet that lesson has abated. The overwhelming majority of people are not engaged deeply enough in the granularity of policy to fully understand the technical differences. They do, however, respond to people they connect with, people who inspire and energize and people who give them confidence. Put another way, they will be much more likely to support candidates who exhibit what I call AWE: authority, warmth and energy.
Many have accused Donald Trump of acting like an autocrat. While we can continue to debate that point, it should be obvious that his supporters voted for him and continue to stand by him partially because of his stylistic authority. He almost always dresses in his trademark dark suit and red tie. He stands up tall and speaks in short declarative sentences in a voice with a rich and forceful tone. Everything about him says he is in charge and has supreme confidence in what he’s doing. Contrast this to Michael Bloomberg who speaks with so much nasality that he compromises his authority from the moment he opens his mouth. He may have been able to overcome that in New York because of his strong technical qualities; he is a great CEO and has run an amazing company. Also, New Yorkers don’t watch the debates in large numbers, so the advertisements have a bigger relative effect. But for so many Americans whose first glimpse of Bloomberg was on the debate stage in Nevada, it was like a blind date. And he couldn’t recover from the bad first impression he made.
The voice coach Morton Cooper wrote in his book Change Your Voice, Change Your Life that your voice is your second face. Other than your appearance, your voice makes the biggest impression, good or bad, on your audience. On that debate stage, with many Americans tuned into the TV but possibly distracted, Bloomberg’s voice took on an even greater importance. If I were advising him, I would have told him to invest in voice coaching to learn how to speak more from his mouth to alleviate much of his nasality. That would immediately have improved his vocal presence and authority.
To make matters worse, Bloomberg also came across as robotic and smiled infrequently. He didn’t give any real sense of who he was underneath the veneer; there was no hint of vulnerability and therefore no warmth and no ability to connect with undecided voters. Further, by exhibiting a supercilious and aloof demeanor and rarely punctuating his words with any inflection or zest, he appeared as though he didn’t even want to be on the debate stage. His seeming lack of emotional connection to his own words created a lack of energy around his persona.
Contrast that to Bernie Sanders, who by all accounts has punched way above his weight in 2016 and again in 2020. The Senator has an authoritative communication style, repeatedly hammering away in short, declarative, surefire statements (stylistically similar to President Trump) and never exhibiting any remorse or doubt about his past or his own vision of the future. It is not a coincidence that his unmistakable brand of relentless authority has fueled his supporters, who seemingly sizzle with energy at his rallies and anywhere he shows up on the campaign trail. At nearly 80, his ability to energize a crowd is reminiscent of another septuagenarian rock star: Mick Jagger.
What does all this mean for leaders? The key to becoming a superstar in your field—whether you’re running for president or leading a company—is to get your audience of stakeholders to trust and believe in you. That means your educational proficiency and specialized skill set will only get you so far. They’re the price of admission. It’s your ability to reach, persuade and influence, the way you communicate and engage with the world, the way you show you give a damn, that makes all the difference in a career that sputters and one that soars. To stand out and excel, to get the attention of those who will help you move up, protect you during lean times or compete for your talent, you need to perfect your AWE. And not just when you’re presenting as a keynote speaker or in a meeting, but in private—when you interact with individual clients, colleagues, board members and employees. The connections you make through “private speaking” are often the ones that can most significantly propel your career and personal life forward.