Virtual Communication Lessons from the DNC


Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D

Over the last few months, organizations have transitioned from traditional offices to the virtual workplace, which makes your continued effectiveness as a communicator increasingly dependent on your ability to connect with, and influence others in this dramatically new environment. 

With that in mind, I hope you watched the Democratic National Convention. For the first time, a national convention was conducted by video from satellite locations across the United States. The speakers at that event were dealing with many of the same challenges that you face in virtual meetings, and there was a lot to learn from the communication strategies they used to project leadership presence.

Reading Body Language at WorkBecause I coach business leaders on body language and leadership presence, I focused primarily on nonverbal cues. I was therefore delighted when two communication experts agreed to review the speakers’ verbal content.

Here are the virtual communication insights we picked up from the DNC. See for yourself how they might apply to you.

Brad Whitworth is a communications and marketing thought leader with more than 40 years of experience as an executive in high-tech, financial services, and non-profit organizations. Here are his observations:

  1. Content is king

When the COVID crisis took away the standard visual cues of the Democratic National Convention — the banners, signs, music, applause, interviews from the floor and more — the organizers had to rely more heavily than ever on content. Content is king when you have to hold the attention of a remote audience that is easily distracted by the evening’s text messages putting the kids to bed. Speakers were able to paint verbal pictures of Democratic hopeful Joe Biden, President Donald Trump and the differences between the two candidates. Former Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond praised Biden’s economic recovery plan as being in touch with working people. “He knows what it’s like to live in a real neighborhood, not just penthouse apartments. He know what it’s like to take the train to work, not just a chauffeured limousine.” 

  1. Stories stick

If you want an important point to stick with your audience, tell them a story. During the convention’s opening night we learned that Joe Biden commuted by train from his home in Wilmington, Delaware, to Washington, D.C., every day so he could tuck his kids into bed every night and eat breakfast with them every morning. This personal story was strengthened when we heard it relayed by the Amtrak conductor who got to know the then-senator during the 90-minute rides.  

  1. There is power in repetition

We were all reminded of the importance of staying “on message” and repeating key points if we want to influence our audiences. We came away with a consistent picture of Joe Biden as a solid, predictable, dedicated public servant when we heard Sen. Doug Jones from Alabama describe “the Joe I know.” Then that same idea was echoed by South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn who explained that “we know Joe because Joe knows us.” 

  1. You need to make a strong connection

Your employees want to know about you on two dimensions — as both a business leader and as a human being. Video conferencing during the COVID crisis has taken employees inside leaders’ homes. You can take a page from Michelle Obama’s playbook when she built empathy with her audience by admitting, “a lot of folks are reluctant to tune into a political convention right now or to politics in general. Believe me, I get that.” And later she repeated her own discomfort over speaking at the convention, saying, “You know I hate politics. But you also know that I care about this nation.” A little humility goes a long way.

  1. Realize you can have an impact with both longer and shorter speeches

We saw that both short and long messages can be impactful. It only took 76 seconds for Marked by Covid founder Kristin Urquiza to explain how her otherwise-healthy 65-year-old father had contracted COVID when he went to a karaoke bar with friends. Her father’s “only pre-existing condition was trusting Donald Trump — and for that he paid with his life.” By contrast, Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s closing speech on the first night was 18:30 long and riveting from start to finish.

The owner of Champion Organic Communications, Peg Champion designs marketing, PR and communications strategies for businesses, association, government and non-profit organizations. Here are Peg’s picks for the three most memorable speeches: 

#1. Michele Obama

While two of the three best speeches of the evening were given by women, it was Michele Obama for the win tonight. 

Looking directly into the camera and speaking with the kind of empathy that is, as she pointed out, utterly lacking in the in the person currently occupying the White House, Michelle Obama gave a riveting speech. She was humble, honest and caring, and that impression came through even when she delivered the dire warning that, “if you think things can’t possibly get worse, trust me, they can and they will if we don’t make a change in this election.” 

Her tone was measured and unwavering as she recounted the collective nightmare of the past four years saying, “Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country… he simply cannot be who we need him to be for us.” And then, throwing some serious shade, with an arched eyebrow, she said, “It is what it is.”

#2. Senator Bernie Sanders

After an initial flurry of hand waving, Sanders settled into his groove and gave a strong speech crafted and delivered with the goal of creating party unity behind Joe Biden against a dangerous threat to our nation. His remarks were crafted to win over his own supporters, those who supported other candidates in the primary and even those who had cast a vote for Trump in the last election. He spoke with urgency and used repetition to good effect, cautioning, “The future of our democracy is at stake.”

He got off a couple of good jabs when he said, “Nero fiddled while Rome burned –Trump golfs!” and “This is not normal!” 

#3. Kristin Urquiza 

Urquiza, whose father died of the Coronavirus, delivered an unexpectedly powerful and damning speech. “My dad was a healthy 65-year-old,” she said. “His only pre-existing condition was trusting Donald Trump — and for that he paid with his life.”

She was angry and she was grieving, yet she never stumbled or became emotional. Her delivery was flawless and searingly honest. 

Echoing what these two experts have already stated, there is tremendous power in the words a leader chooses to express his or her thoughts. However, there are two channels of communication, verbal and nonverbal, and audiences are simultaneously assessing tone of voice, facial expressions, hand gestures, and posture for clues about a speaker’s true intent. In a very real way, nonverbal signals can support or weaken verbal messages. 

Here are three of my observations about the impact of what wasn’t said at the DNC:

  1. First impressions are instantaneous

While an in-person presentation offers added time and opportunity to impress an audience by the way you walk on stage or greet people in the meeting room, on a television or computer screen, it’s only your initial visual image that makes that first impression. 

Wisconsin Rep. Gwen Moore came across instantly with a high level of energy, South Carolina’s Rep. Jim Clyburn’s solemn expression was perfectly congruent with the solemn message he was about to deliver, Minnesota’s Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s genuine smile let us know that her presentation would be upbeat, and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich looked comfortable and relaxed from the first moment we saw him.

But Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer only smiled after she was sure she was on camera, and since we read and react to someone’s facial expression in a fraction of a second, her smile was a fraction of a second too late. 

Susan Molinari, the former New York Rep. also made a body language error: She sat with her shoulders rounded, chest concaved, and hands tightly clasped. By condensing her body in this manner, and she weakened her authentic leadership presence.

  1. Visual symbols are powerful

2016 Republican presidential candidate and Ohio Gov. Jon Kasich delivered his endorsement of Biden from an intersection of two gravel roads, amplifying his message that the country is literally at a crossroads and that President Donald Trump has taken the country “down the wrong road.” 

As she talked about racial injustice, Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser spoke from a vantage point in the nation’s capital where she could share the screen with Black Lives Matter Plaza.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto from Nevada chose a kitchen background to be seen, “like all of us are,” working from home. This strengthened her message about the need for voting by mail. 

Gov. Mario Cuomo’s early use of a simple graph showing New York’s ability to control COVID-19 infection rates over the last 170 days helped reinforce his reputation as a credible speaker on the topic. 

Brad Whitworth noted that the lineup of speakers — and their credentials — also sent a message to the audience before a single word was delivered. A key theme of the night was “We the People” and the conference organizers took every opportunity to showcase the universal appeal of the party by including women, people of color, children and former Democratic rivals, and a group of lifelong Republicans on the virtual stage. Even the choice of polished actor Eva Longoria Baston as the evening’s emcee — a successful Latina from Texas and the daughter of a serviceman — delivered a symbolic statement of inclusion and unity.

  1. Leaders need to send two sets of signals

There are two sets of body-language cues that people instinctively look for in leaders. One set projects warmth, empathy and likability and the other signals power, authority and status. 

Both are necessary for leaders today, but the “warmer side” of nonverbal communication becomes central to bonding with your audience — especially over virtual mediums and when connecting with people in emotionally stressful times. 

Michele Obama sent both set of signals last night.

Her erect posture, raised head, unwavering eye contact, and steady tone of voice displayed power and gravitas. Her hands beat an emphatic rhythm up and down when she emphasized each word in statements like, “We’ve got to vote for Joe Biden.” 

But it was her display of empathy that had the most impact. She shook her head slowly when she talked about “not yet being where we want to be as a country.” And any time she spoke about her feelings or her hope for the future of America, her palms turned toward her body and she pulled her hands close to her chest, as if to hold us all near. 

Because her body language was totally aligned with her verbal message, she gained credibility and built trust. 

As a business communicator, you may never be part of a virtual political convention — but you can learn a lot from watching one!

About the Author: Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D. is an international keynote speaker and leadership presence coach. She’s the creator of “Body Language for Leaders” (LinkedIn Learning’s video course with over 2 million views) and the author of “STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence” available for pre-order on Amazon. 

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