Justin Patton

Lesson 4: How to Lose a Political Debate Without Saying A Word

Lesson 4: How to Lose a Political Debate Without Saying A Word

Lesson #4: Avoid All That Nervous Behavior Because You Look Crazy

First things first, always make sure you have a bottle of water to drink. Nixon looked like a cow trying to lick a salt-lick in his first 8 minute opening. In the video below, Nixon licks his lips a minimum of 30 times within the opening statement. Not only does this not look presidential but it creates a perception of anxiety.


I often recommend that politicians occasionally anchor themselves to the podium using one hand and gesture with the other. When you anchor yourself to a solid surface than you take up the space of that surface and can appear more confident. At 2:34, you see Nixon anchoring to the podium. However, he is anchoring with both hands, which makes him appear like he’s trying to “hold on” vs. feeling comfortable and relaxed.


At 5:21 you will see Nixon stumble over his words. As a result, you see him close his eyes a little longer than normal. This can be perceived as eye-blocking behavior where you don’t want to see what’s right in front of you. This gesture is normal in this situation, since he doesn’t want everyone to see the mistake he just made. The best communicators understand that they are going to fumble over their words from time-to-time and they know how to adapt without appearing uncomfortable.


At 4:36 and 7:49, Nixon does a good job showing empathy towards John F. Kennedy. One of the biggest mistakes politicians make is coming across as too aggressive and being perceived as a bully. Showing empathy allowed the viewers/listeners to see that Nixon could see both sides of an argument.


Finally, throughout the opening statement you can see the pool of water that forms on Nixon’s chin and under his lip due to his refusal to wear makeup. Many of the experts who have analyzed the debate often site this as a major political blunder for Nixon. However, I disagree. I think pundits have sited the obvious and used it justify why Nixon lost the election. I never felt like the sweat on his chin was a distraction or eroded his credibility. From a nonverbal perspective, I am more concerned with the perceptions of the lip-licking, eye blocking, and grappling of the podium.


Check out Nixon’s 8 minute opening statement and see if you can spot these nonverbal cues.



Television has changed the face of politics forever. Candidates must now exude credibility, likeability, and be articulate in a variety of different mediums. Some believe that television has given viewers an invitation to focus on what they see vs. what they hear. Personally, I think it has allowed viewers to do both. It paints a more accurate portrait of a candidate’s character. Our political leaders must learn to be skilled communicators and know how to use the science of body language to adapt their message.


In the end, Nixon noticeably loses the first 1960 Presidential debate by not even saying a word.

Justin Patton