Justin Patton

Lesson 1: How to Lose a Political Debate Without Saying A Word

Lesson 1: How to Lose a Political Debate Without Saying A Word

If there is one fundamental lesson that all politicians can learn from the first televised political debate in 1960 between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, it is how to lose a political debate without saying a word.

It is fundamental that politicians understand how nonverbal communication impacts voter perception and changes the outcome of elections since over 80% of how we communicate is through nonverbal cues. The common wisdom that many of us heard over the years was that Richard Nixon lost the first televised debate because of his pale looks and sweaty face. Though I agree with these observations, I would argue that there are four fundamental body language lessons to be learned from the September 26, 1960 Presidential debate that were more important and led to Nixon’s loss of the debate. Ultimately, Nixon failed to. . .

  • Appear Confident
  • Listen With Respect
  • Align Gestures and Words
  • Avoid Nervous Behaviors

In my next four blogs, I will discuss each of the lessons and provide specific examples from the 1960 debate.


Lesson #1: You have to Appear Confident, So Fake It Till You Make It

Whether conscious or not, the general public looks for a candidate they perceive as “presidential.” A candidate’s ability to exude confidence – even when they’re not feeling that way – is fundamental in creating this perception.

From the moment the debate opens, we see both candidates sitting in metal folding chairs. John F. Kennedy has good posture and is looking straight ahead which displays confidence. Additionally, his ability to cross his legs and cup his hands in what many would consider a high-stress situation gives the perception that he can stay relaxed under pressure.

Richard Nixon made two critical body language errors right from the beginning of the debate. Nixon’s feet resemble a track runner’s as he/she is about to bolt from the block. He looks like he just wants to get away.  Had Nixon put both feet parallel on the ground then he would have looked confident and grounded. Unfortunately, Nixon’s biggest mistake was clutching a death-grip on the left arm of the chair, which gives off a perception that he is uncomfortable and perhaps nervous. With a quick glance, it looks like Nixon is holding a cane.








One additional way to appear confident is to use your chin to your advantage! John F. Kennedy consistently lifted his chin slightly higher than parallel which exposed more of his neck dimple when speaking. This gesture exudes confidence and we see it modeled today with political leaders like President Barack Obama. Political leaders must use this gesture with caution since it can border on arrogance. Nixon would maintain a level head while speaking during the debate but he would often look down or have darting eye contact when listening. These gestures minimize his ability to be perceived as confident.



Finally, if you remember nothing else about confidence remember to stand up straight with both feet slightly apart. Richard Nixon noticeably shifts his weight from leg-to-leg throughout the debate and repeatedly bends one of his legs. This body language is too casual for the situation both men are in and it only perpetuates the image that he is tired and/or bored.






So you tell me. Who appeared more confident?

Justin Patton