Roger Ailes is right. It is all about likability. I was thinking about that this morning while running in the light rain. I watched the Palin-Biden debate last night. Did it change anything. Probably not. Even Sarah Palin can’t save John McCain at this point. But the debate did reinforce some beliefs I have about communications and presentations.
Here’s where Ailes comes him. Before Ailes gained notoriety as the head of Fox News, he worked with Mike Douglas in the early days of television and with Ronald Reagan in the last days of America’s greatness. He then wrote a really insightful book about public speaking and news media interviews, “You Are the Message: Getting What You Want by Being Who You Are.” I used the book in one of my public relations courses at Kent State. The book is brief, well-written, inexpensive and full of practical advice. In other words, the polar opposite of most college textbooks. But I digress.
Here’s the advice Ailes gives if you are making a presentation or being interviewed by a reporter: relax, smile, start strong, end stronger and most of all — be likable. In fact, he calls likablility the magic bullet. In effect, if the audience likes you — they will forgive any technical flaws or gaffs in your presentation.
Folks, that describes Sarah Palin’s “presentation” to the American public last night. And it says volumes about how we judge and elect public officials.
Then there is Joe Biden: knowledgeable, articulate, full of facts and figures. Likable? Hmm. Probably in real life but not really in the Reality TV venue — at least not until he talked about his personal experience as a single parent, following the death of his wife and daughter in a car accident.
Then there is Sarah Palin.
She walks on stage and approaches Joe: “Nice to meet you. Hey, can I call you Joe?” She smiles. She winks at the TV audience. She looks directly at Biden. It looks like she is having a good time. And whether she has anything of substance to say or not — she’s likable. The magic bullet.
Here’s from Peggy Noonan, writing in The Wall Street Journal this morning:
She killed. She had him at “Nice to meet you. Hey, can I call you Joe?” She was the star. He was the second male lead, the good-natured best friend of the leading man. She was not petrified but peppy.
The whole debate was about Sarah Palin. She is not a person of thought but of action. Interviews are about thinking, about reflecting, marshaling data and integrating it into an answer. Debates are more active, more propelled—they are thrust and parry. They are for campaigners. She is a campaigner. Her syntax did not hold, but her magnetism did. At one point she literally winked at the nation.
As far as Mrs. Palin was concerned, Gwen Ifill was not there, and Joe Biden was not there. Sarah and the camera were there. This was classic “talk over the heads of the media straight to the people,” and it is a long time since I’ve seen it done so well, though so transparently. There were moments when she seemed to be doing an infomercial pitch for charm in politics. But it was an effective infomercial.
Sarah Palin was supposed to fall off the stage at her vice presidential debate Thursday evening. Instead, she ended up dominating it.
She not only kept Joe Biden on the defensive for much of the debate, she not only repeatedly attacked Barack Obama, but she looked like she was enjoying herself while doing it.
She smiled. She faced the camera. She was warm. She was human. Gosh and golly, she even dropped a bunch of g’s.
“John McCain doesn’t tell one thing to one group and somethin’ else to another,” she said. “Those huge tax breaks aren’t comin’ to those huge multinational corporations.”
She went out of her way to talk in everyday terms, saying things like “I betcha” and “We have a heckuva opportunity to learn” and “Darn right we need tax relief.”
Biden was somber, serious and knowledgeable. And he seemed to think that debates were about facts. He had a ton of them.
Or how about Tom Shales? He’s with the inside-the-Beltway-elite-media crowd. He writes:
Sarah Palin looked as though she had prepared for her appearance at the vice presidential debate last night by studying Tina Fey’s impressions of her on “Saturday Night Live.” She twinkled and winked and piled on the perkiness, a “darn right” here and an “I’ll betcha” there.
The challenge to Fey, who is scheduled to play the Alaska governor and Republican candidate again on the next “SNL” broadcast, will be to out-Palin Palin, to make the parody more outrageous than the original.
Tina Fey is likable. See what I mean. Roger Ailes is right.
And Joe Biden has all the facts. The question is whether anyone cares?
Even on American Idol the best singer doesn’t always win.