In 1960, the relatively unknown Senator John F Kennedy debated against Vice President Nixon in a US first television live debate in a presidential election campaign.
It’s widely acknowledged that without that debate, Kennedy would never have been president. Nixon, pale and underweight from a recent hospitalisation, appeared sickly and under pressure, also famously refusing makeup, while Kennedy appeared calm and confident, tanned, robust and healthy, wearing full make up.
Those who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon had won. Those who watched it on television, thought Kennedy had been victorious. While Nixon went on to perform much better in subsequent debates (and to look better, due to weight gain), 20 million people watched that first one, and the damage had been done.
For the first time ever in the US, viewers judged presidential candidates on not just content, but style, stage presence, appearance. For the first time, it demonstrated that how you present yourself, counts.
In our working lives we make presentations, give interviews and conduct meetings, leaving first impressions every day. We don’t want to be all style and no substance, but how you present yourself, matters. How you dress, how you shake hands, how you speak at that first meeting, may be the only shot you have, so you have to make it count.
Sometimes we are casual in our approach with business associates, with prospective clients, with colleagues, and we conspiratorially confess that business hasn’t been great, that we couldn’t wait to leave the office to go home and watch the Olympics, assuming we are making friends, but this is not the climate for over sharing- this economic climate requires your game face!
People like to think they’re doing business with a focused, capable, confident person, and that first impression will do at least half the convincing, that you’re the right person for the job.
Nixon himself insisted on campaigning right up to an hour before that famous debate, not having fully recovered from a hospital visit either, but he never got a chance to explain that in the live debate- the public presumed him exhausted, weaker than his opponent. Not fair, not true, but the rest is history.
Of course we all do our best to look smart going to work, and make a greater effort for important meetings, but we should probably assume that how we present ourselves says more about us than we realise. Bear it mind as you’re getting dressed tomorrow morning- time to get your game face on!
Jill Collins conducts presentation skills training and media training in both Cork and Dublin.