How Obama learned to sell in 2012

A fascinating extract from Mark Halperin and John Heileman’s Double Down in New York magazine this week explains how the President and his team corrected course after the debacle of the first debate vs. Obama. It’s a powerful lesson in how everyone can benefit from ruthless self-examination and outside scrutiny. How our instincts can betray us. And how to present yourself under the very brightest stage lights.

As Halperin and Heileman tell it, Obama was reeling after the first debate. Romney had beaten him soundly and the polls were showing it. But in private prep sessions for the next debate, the President seemed disengaged, rambling, haughty. He used the classic bad salesman’s excuse: “I’m a naturally polite person.” His team feared another fiasco would sink the campaign. They presented him a memo to remind of “the Six A’s” vital to debating:

Advocate (don’t explain)




Answers with principles and values

Allow your self to take advantage of openings

Halperin and Heilemann are skilled storytellers, and the story is framed very much as one of triumph over impending disaster, and reflects very well on the President and his team, who evidently told the writers this story. That said, the President recognized he was having trouble in these debates. He tells his staff he cannot just perform. He’s a lawyer by nature and training. He likes to be logical. He resents the fakery of these debates.

It’s against my instincts just to perform. It’s easy for me to slip back into what I know, which is basically to dissect arguments. I think when I talk. It can be halting. I start slow. It’s hard for me to just go into my answer. I’m having to teach my brain to function differently. I’m left-handed; this is like you’re asking me to start writing right-handed.

In the subsequent training sessions, Obama did improve. When he started to digress, his advisors yelled “Fast and hammy!” to keep him on track. And fast and hammy he was.

One paragraph in the book really caught my attention, and applies just as well to sales as it does to politics. Sales is often the last thing you have to do, after all the hard work of developing a product. So it’s worth taking the time to get it right. Here’s how Ron Klain explained the debates to the President:

Klain employed a sports analogy. The Tennessee Titans lost the Super Bowl a couple of years ago because their guy got tackled on the one-yard line, he said – the one-yard line! That’s where we are. The hardest thing for any candidate in a debate is to know the substance. You have that down cold. All we need is a little more effort on performance. You need to go in there and talk as fast as you can. You need to add a little schmaltz, talk about stuff the way that people want to hear it. This isn’t about starting from scratch. We’ve got most of it right. The part we have left to get right is small. But as the Titans proved, small can mean the difference between winning and losing.

Knowing the substance is one thing. Adding the sauce of sales may not be what you want to do, but without it you’ll be at least one yard short.

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