How to handle a candidate forum

I understand that a great part of my charm comes from coming across like a complete pain in the ass, but, trust me, there’s a method to my surly madness. And one of those Zen undercurrents is, as I frequently like to say, politics ain’t a game for sissies and simply offering platitudes like “go get ’em!” doesn’t help anyone.

So, while I absolutely love all those non-ideologue folks willing to assume the public risk that comes along with throwing your hat into the ring, considering the massive effort required of most local campaigns, I can’t understand why the vast majority of novice candidates refuse to ask for advice.

Or they ask the wrong people for advice. And it’s so simple too! Talk to someone who’s run several successful campaigns or, better yet, talk with a candidate who’s won at least two contested elections.

DO NOT GO TO YOUR FAMILY FOR ADVICE! No matter what you say, do, or plan, like Tony the Tiger, they’ll say it’s great! This is especially true of husbands who don’t want to face four straight weeks of celibacy for saying the “wrong” thing. Going to your children is even worse.

Your family will lovingly forgive your worst transgressions, but the voters will remember the slightest mistake.

forumSo it pains me when I have witness to yet another hardworking hopeful make the kind of avoidable basic blunders that  dooms their fledgling candidacy. And I’ve seen way too much of it lately, specifically, at two recent Geneva candidate forums. Though, rest assured, this phenomenon is by no means relegated to my home town.

With the exception of one first-time candidate, the performance of the school board and aldermanic challengers was, to be blunt, a varying degree of terrible. Meanwhile, the incumbents, and one former incumbent, handily proved why they’ve all won more than one election.

The good news for the challengers is, given who tends to attend these events, it’s nothing more than preaching to the choir. Thus, the best forum performance will not win you an election. But the bad news is, these things tend to make it onto Youtube these days, and a bad performance can most certainly cost you an election.

But rather that critique any specific candidate’s performance, let’s cover some basic forum participation pointers:

1. Act like you want to be there. Show some enthusiasm. Smile. The voters can read about your positions online so they come to these events to see how well you handle yourself. And trust me! They will notice when you look completely bored or worse yet, like a deer in the headlights.

2. Be engaged! Look at your opponent(s). Pay attention to them when they speak. You’re most likely running for some sort of board and if you give the impression that only the sound of your own voice excites you, it does not bode well.

3. PROJECT!!! Especially when it comes to you ladies, there’s virtually no such thing as being too loud. If folks have to strain to hear you – either in person or on the video – they will immediately dismiss you.

4. Brevity is better than rambling. Do not try to cover up a lack of knowledge by talking in circles. There were a couple of questions at last night’s LOWV event that required a simple yes or no answer. But only the former incumbent “got that.” There’s nothing wrong with answering like this, “The short answer is ‘yes!’ But that question is too complex for a two minute time frame. I look forward to working with school/city staff and my constituents to gain a better understanding of this issue.”

5. Answer assertively. If you answer the question in the form of a question, or worse yet, with a halting and stammering delivery, it will not go over well. Again! Your friends and family will forgive you, but the voters won’t. I understand that most of us are terrified of public speaking. So pick one voter out of the crowd and speak directly to them. The dais is usually far enough away from the audience that you can get away with it.

6. No one’s interested in your life story. With the exception of your opening statement or a question requiring a personal answer, leave it to your biographer. Don’t tell stories either – no one cares. Voters want to know how you’re going to help them with their issues and whether you can play well with others. Consistently talking about yourself is a huge red flag.

7. Speed is your enemy! Talking too fast will lose people just as fast as halting answers will. For two-minute opening and closing statements, write a one minute speech and take the full two minutes to deliver it.

8. Dress appropriately. I can’t believe I have to say this, but dress like you work at a white collar office. That means a suit and tie for men.

9. Don’t read your opening and closing statements from notes. Look directly at the voters. It’s not that difficult to memorize a two minute speech.

10. Be grateful! Thank your hosts for putting on the event. Thank the voters for showing up. And thank your opponents for joining you on the dais. I’m happy to say that most of the challengers got this one right.

And here’s the most important thing!

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice – right? Would you play competitive tennis without practicing first? Would you attempt to fix your car without taking a few repair lessons? Do your children go to their music recital without running through their piece a number of times?

The night before his first candidate forum, a Geneva alderman had two astute political friends fire questions at him for two hours. They immediately critiqued those answers as too long, too short, too halting, wrong answer etc… After having to endure that gauntlet, the event itself was a piece of cake and he went on to win his first election.

If you can’t manage that, video yourself answering questions. If you don’t have a camera, do it in front of a mirror. Again, unless they’re as blunt as I am, having your family or friends critique your practice performance. WILL NOT WORK.

It wouldn’t hurt to listen to and watch candidates who nailed it during interviews and forums either. I consistently put those kind of examples up on this blog.

Look! Candidate forums and debates always come right before the voting starts. For that very reason, a good friend likes to call them “final exams” because, by that time, the signs are up, the flyers are out, and most of the doors have been knocked upon. Thus, your performance at a forum shows voters just how well you’ve campaigned up to that point.

And I can pick the winners and losers from that performance every time.

2 thoughts on “How to handle a candidate forum

  1. Good advice, all of it.

    Also, as Woody Allen says, 80 percent of success is just “showing up.”

    I attended such a forum at the Sugar Grove Library last week.
    Four uncontested candidates didn’t have enough respect for the voters to even show up,
    same for one of the four candidates for Waubonsee College Trustee.

    I have kept the list of speakers, noting who appeared, and who didn’t.
    I only hope others attending this event did the same, and will also remember
    those inconsiderate candidates if they choose to run in any future election.

  2. Excellent advice. Being a 1st time candidate for Elgin City Council I did seek out people who had run before and others who have advised candidates…..without their input I would not have been as effective as I have been.

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