Stanford Finds Communication Lessons in ’08 Debates

After listening to president/orator-in-chief Barak Obama’s first congressional address earlier in the week, I found this tidbit from the latest Stanford Business magazine really intriguing. Together with Stanford University‘s vice president for public affairs David Demarest,senior lecturer of management JD Schramm used the 2008 presidential debates to help GSB students focus on the “power and pitfalls” of their own communication.

In a half-quarter elective called Political Communication, students dissected the candidates’ performances in the three presidential and one vice presidential debates. More than just an entertainment opportunity or current events discussion, “We challenged the students to consider the debates a prism through which they could reflect on their own communication abilities and apply lessons to their own lives,” Schramm writes. In their final papers, students applied what they’d learned to their careers.

So what did participants take away from the debates after scrutinizing governor Sarah Palin‘s winks and the references to Joe the Plumber, ad nauseum, from both parties? The professor sums it up rather succinctly: communicating to large, diverse audiences requires discipline, flexibility, honesty and rehearsal to make sure the points you want to make are actually what listeners take away.

One student, bound for private equity, drew comparisons between the debate setting and his future role “presenting to management, limited partners, and colleagues on the appropriate leverage level for a cyclical business.” In both cases, the salient lessons are the same: “Be myself, come prepared, spin a good narrative, and demonstrate flexibility and thoughtfulness.”

Although few students in this political communication class will likely run for public office, they can use the debate lessons to improve their communities and companies by being authentic, prepared, flexible, and compelling, Schramm says, adding that there is one major drawback to using presidential debates as course text. “I now have to wait four years for another opportunity.”


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