Five Tips to Prepare for a Candidate Debate

Nearly every campaign will have at least one debate or public forum. And, unless you are lucky enough to be running unopposed, more than likely you’ll be participating.

Now, political debates aren’t what they used to be. There are few contemporary examples that rival the Lincoln — Douglas debates or even Nixon and Kennedy.

However, every candidate debate for every race matters. Here’s why: Regardless of how many people are paying attention, if you screw up, everyone suddenly will. Just ask Gov. Rick Perry.

1. Avoid Mistakes (Bad Press)

Assume everything you say or do, including eye rolls, deep sighs, exasperated looks and more will make it to YouTube. That’s not the type of attention you want for your race. Unlike Donald Trump’s campaign strategy, not all press is good press.

Need an example? We already mentioned Nixon. His sweaty and uncomfortable look under the camera lights against the cool and calm Kennedy may have cost him the election. There a million more.

Remember, the truth is a candidate debate isn’t about issues, it is about style. That may offend some people, but it is reality. People will vote for the candidate they like.

We’re not trying to put too much pressure on you. It’s true that in most races, candidate debates matter to very few voters. But any chance you get, especially when running at the local level, to get your message out, is one you should grab.

This leads to our next tip.

2. Take Advantage of the Press

How often do you get a chance to get your message out to the voters? For most campaigns, the answer is not very often. Debates and forums are excellent opportunities to get coverage, especially for down ballot races.

Don’t be shy. Introduce yourself to the reporters at the event. Have materials ready to share with them about your race. Chances are, if there are several candidates or races on the program, they’ll appreciate you making their job easier.

Which brings us to tip #3…

3. Know Your Message

This is the main point of nearly every candidate debate prep advice article. You’re job is not answer every question asked. Your job is to get your message across to the voters. This means pivoting your answers to talk about what you want to talk about. Preferably in a way that isn’t snarky or coming off “like a typical politician.”

Of course, to accomplish this, you need to know your message. You’d be surprised at how many candidates who cannot articulate their message coherently.

(Shameless plug: We offer a great class on how to build your campaign message. If you need help, we highly recommend you check it out and try the worksheets it includes.)

4. Make Tangible Requests

I am pretty sure this our unique tip for debate prep, but it’s a result from my fundraising background. In finance, you have to ask for money to get money (AKA Always Be Closing. Warning: that link is to a clip of a great movie that contains language and material some may find offensive.)

The same holds true in every other aspect of a campaign. You want someone to vote for you? Tell them so. Ask for their vote. Be direct.

A debate is one the few chances you get to say whatever you like. Take advantage of this opportunity and ask the voters to support you. Ask for volunteers. Tell people who like what you have to say how to support you.

In my experience, the people who do attend or watch local debates are the kind who vote no matter what. They are also likely to be some of the best volunteers and supporters you can find.

5. Be Yourself

This is the obligatory, but also most important, tip of any candidate debate prep article. Be yourself. Let voters see who you are. No one wants to a robot or lawyer. They want to get to know you. Don’t hold back.

Okay, don’t go too overboard, but I think you know what I mean.

If you’re funny, make them laugh. If you’re serious, then show off your expertise. Whatever you do, give them a reason to like you. After all, you may be the most qualified candidate with the best policy expertise in the race, but if voters don’t like you, it won’t matter.