Trump v. Clinton: Preparation = Performance

If you’ve read any of the analysis of the 2016 Trump-Clinton presidential debates, you’ve encountered significant discussion about different preparation styles.  Hillary Clinton prepares with hours of study, mock debates and notes.  Donald Trump, famously, prefers to wing it. By general consensus, Hillary Clinton won the first debate and Donald Trump performed somewhat better in the second one compared to his initial outing. The pressures of competing to lead the free world are immense, with only a select few getting a peek behind this curtain. Yet all performers face the same kinds of pressures every day in their own ways for their own stakes.

The relationship between preparation and performance in the debates offers us lessons to be our best when the lights come on in our own chosen arenas.

Every Meeting is a Performance

Most of my senior executive clients have been in the business world (and/or at the same company) for many years. Ironically, their long tenure often breeds a familiarity that can become a complacency trap: “I’ve been to tons of these meetings, I’ve given many speeches, I’ve negotiated many deals,” etc. As a result, their meeting performances might be somewhat successful but fail to leave others inspired, motivated and impressed. Do you recognize yourself here?

Regardless of the setting, I advise my clients to change their mindset by thinking of every meeting, without exception, as a performance. If you view a meeting as a performance you will most likely prepare. If you view it merely as a meeting you most likely will not. I ask my clients to determine their own personal desired outcomes prior to each meeting. How do you want to be perceived? What impressions do you want to leave with others regarding your leadership, presence and performance? In other words, how do you want to “show up” in any given performance? This approach allows leaders to fully appreciate their impact on others and the need for adequate preparation for every performance. It also serves as a yardstick for evaluating your performance once completed.performance

Practice Like You Play

What athlete would play a game without practice? What actor or singer would step onstage without rehearsals, sound checks and many dry runs honing their delivery? Not any excellent performer that I know. The question then becomes not whether you should you practice before every performance, but how? The answer: the sport psychology concept of competition simulation. In order to practice most effectively you have to mimic the conditions under which you will perform.

Sports teams often have huge speakers with jet engine noise inserted in their practice sessions when they are preparing to play an opponent with an extremely noisy crowd on their home turf. Executives and professional speakers often visit the stage prior to their performance to incorporate visualization into their preparation process. I once witnessed a college basketball team conducting a free throw drill where all the teammates of the player shooting a free throw were yelling at him, waiving their arms, etc. All of these are examples of effective competition simulation. The mistake I most often see executives making is reviewing a PowerPoint presentation or script of their presentation without rehearsing it verbally. The focus on content rather than delivery results in a performance that is below their capability. The goal of effective preparation is to give youself the best possibility to succeed and excel when you perform. You cannot accomplish this if you are preparing in a different manner than you will be performing.

Clinton’s Approach

Clinton prepared for the first debate by being briefed repeatedly by her aides.  She reviewed immense amounts of reports, Trump’s previous debate videos, interviews, etc. Through this preparation she determined the best way to “push his buttons.” She held mock debates to rehearse her responses to Trump’s expected retorts. Clinton welcomed solicited and unsolicited input from psychologists, politicians and individuals of various backgrounds. She availed herself to anything that could be helpful in her preparation.

Trump’s Approach

In contrast, Trump reportedly ignored advice from his inner circle to prepare in a similar manner as Clinton for the first debate. He assumed that his previous approach and style in other contexts would translate to a successful one-on-one format with a very experienced debater. He was wrong. Rather than formal competition simulation, he engaged in a typical extroverted approach to preparation by talking and thinking out loud in discussions with a few select people in his inner circle. Rather than anticipating the debate environment and adapting his preparation approach accordingly, he resorted to a  style within in his comfort zone, indicating he didn’t want to be “too scripted.” As a result, he was outperformed by a more prepared opponent.

A 3-Step Approach to Performance

Your goal in preparing for any meeting, contest, speech or public appearance is to put yourself in the best possible position to perform well. If you practice properly you earn the right to be confident. If not, you’ll be haunted by an inner voice eating at you, knowing that you are not fully prepared for the task at hand. The approach I’ve found most effective with all performers is to Prepare, Perform, Evaluate. Engaging in deliberate preparation, setting advance performance goals and evaluating your performance will allow you to create a consistent, disciplined and systematic approach to sustainable excellence.

Following the third debate, we will be able to tell if Trump has embraced such an approach. If he continues to rely upon familiar and comfortable preparation strategies, he will likely fall short in another debate. In your life as a performer, when have you taken Trump’s approach? What will you do in the future to ensure you are properly prepared for every performance?

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