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Archive for September 2015

Executive Presence-55th Anniversary of the First Televised Presidential Debate

Executive Presence-55th Anniversary of the First Televised Presidential Debate
kennedy and nixon-2

1960 Presidential Debates: Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon, Source: Google Images

by Terri L. Williams

“All the world’s a stage” is the phrase that begins a monologue from William Shakespeare’s As You Like It. This was certainly a phenomenal truth on this day 55 years ago for the September 26, 1960 United States Presidential Debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. The History Channel reports, …charisma and on-camera personality were keys to winning the first televised presidential debate.

Great leaders know that substance has to be balanced with style. Prior to television, a candidate’s ability to create great moments in the media was limited to two avenues radio and newspaper. For both of these avenues, efforts were carefully crafted for optimum delivery of a leader’s image to give the perceptron of strong, decisive, leadership.

For example, President Roosevelt conducted his weekly radio fireside chats, where the tone and pitch of his voice demonstrated strength to the Nation. Even The United States Military Academy’s alumnus old blood and guts General Patton was concerned about his high pitched voice and if it would give an appearance of weakness.

The Learning Network and The New York Times reported, on September 26, 1960, more than 70 million American viewers watched the first televised presidential debates between candidates Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.  They were the first debates ever to be held between the presidential nominees of the two major parties during the election season. Comparatively, The Washington Post reported in 2012 more than 67 million people watched the first presidential debate of this election cycle — nearly 15 million more people than watched the first presidential debate four years ago. That 67 million, however, falls very short of the Mother of All Presidential Debates: the Oct. 28, 1980 smack down between President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, which had drawn a whopping 81 million viewers.

Today, we have over 50 years of history from political analysts, subject matter experts in body language and image telling us that Kennedy clearly won the first televised debates against Nixon. But how did Kennedy do it? How did he win? How did he know what to focus on for this new medium in delivering political messages for television?  Many analysts say Kennedy had a great staff that prepared him well, and he listened to them.


While content still rules, the Center for Talent Innovation, a New York based think tank, found in its 2012 research, that executive presence accounts for 26 percent of a leader’s success. Projecting executive presence and making the right first impression improves both stature and reputation, with increased confidence as a by-product.

First Impressions

According to David Greenberg of, on television Kennedy looked handsome, dapper, poised, and articulate, He displayed with his appearance any nagging worries that he might be too callow for the presidency. In comparison, Greenberg shares that Nixon appeared clammy-faced, awkward, and he was plagued by his gloomy five-o’clock shadow.

Today, the importance of all forms of media has required us to be mindful of our appearances 24 hours per day and 7 days a week.  Kennedy’s performance is certainly a best practice for all to benchmark in demonstrating excellence with the media.


Over the years after receiving opinions of First Impressions of the candidates, and listening to all of the analysis by experts around the world. Do we actually remember what they each candidate said in their allotted 11 minutes during the 1960 debates? They each had a chance to provide opening statements at eight minutes each and closing statements at three minutes each. Here is a throwback of the debate (58 minutes)-

The History Channel’s Julian Zeiler (Princeton University) and KC Johnson (Brooklyn College) shared that Nixon’s massage for the debate was based on his historical influence as a Vice President, experience in the White House, and Nixon never understood that style mattered. Kennedy was very conscience of his image and how he appears during the debates, he looked right in the camera when answering questions, he clearly understood the power of his image to the voter. Kennedy capitalized on his style advantage over Nixon’s substance advantage.

Interestingly, there were two camps of listeners for the debate; each camp had their own perception of a winner. Those watching the debate on television clearly believed Kennedy won, while those listening to the debates thought Nixon won.

While Nixon was certainly on point with his message from a listening perspective, his comfort in delivering his message needed refinement for television. His body language and message were not congruent. Congruency would have allowed Nixon’s body language and message to flow without nervousness which many visually saw come forward through his profuse sweating and trembling voice.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was told early in her career that the sound of the shrill in her voice reduced her ability to appear confident, so she hired a voice coach, coupled with her obvious substance for politics, the rest is history.

While in 1960, Vice President Nixon was a proven leader; it is evident that he did not think he had to be cognizant of commanding the room during the Presidential debate, that room being the world stage of television.

Analysts share that both Kennedy and Nixon’s teams advised both of them of the impact of their presence on television.  Kennedy listened to his team and used the new media to his advantage.  Nixon, felt that it was not necessary to focus so much on the media, but continued crafting the substance of his message.


The Times wrote that Senator Kennedy “maintained an expression of gravity suitable for a candidate for the highest office in the land,” while the vice president “dabbed frequently at the perspiration that beaded out on his chin.”

The intangibles of gravitas are, confidence, decisiveness, emotional intelligence, integrity, reputation, and vision. In comparison to Kennedy, Nixon’s nervousness, profuse sweating placed the 70 million viewer’s belief in Nixon’s confidence, integrity, and vision in questionable doubt.

Surely, Nixon was aware of the intangibles from a theoretical perspective, however moving theory into practice using a new communication tool required a strategy, which Kennedy possessed. Nixon, whom was ill, chose to work on his speech and remarks, while Kennedy chose to work on his speech, remarks, and executive presence (first impressions, communications, gravitas, and appearance).


Image is a perception, an intangible quality, which is difficult to define. Integrating technical knowledge and academic identity with professional presence can be a challenge. Yes we know that Senator Kennedy nailed his appearance congruently with his message (opening and closing statements), while setting a standard of excellence for future politicians. In particular, Kennedy’s grooming was immaculate, his suit’s size, fit, and color was on point. However, Nixon’s was too.

Nixon however was not congruent in his delivery of his message. He looked disheveled, sweated, and cold. This was not congruent with his message of America was moving ahead. He delivered exciting news on education, healthcare, and housing, but lacked enthusiasm and energy coupled with the obvious issues. Viewers may have lacked support with regard to issues he shared 


We can revert back to the age-old debate of the difference between a manager and a leader. While Nixon, continued to focus on his technical expertise and building a powerful speech and comments during his 11 minutes he traveled down a limited path, which was siloed, for his message. Kennedy on the other hand had a broad effort, which in encompassed his vision of what he wanted to demonstrate in delivering his speech and comments.

The Center for Talent Innovation’s 2012 research, which found that executive presence accounts for 26 percent of a leader’s success, is applicable to the results of the 1960 Presidential Debate. Both candidates possessed political substance, both were proven leaders, but one had something different which satisfied the need of the day. Presidential Candidate Kennedy’s executive presence clearly stood out and helped him to win ultimately the presidency of the United States.


  • Center for Talent Innovation, Executive Presence, 2012.
  • Greenberg, David, September 24, 2010, Did JFK really win because he looked better on television?
  • Moraes, Lisa, October 4, 2012, The Washington Post, Fox News Channel scores most viewers for debate, according to early stats.
  • Shakespeare, William, Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man. Van Voorst, 1848.
  • The Learning Network, Sept. 26, 1960 | First Televised Presidential Debate, September 26, 2011

Terri L. Williams is an executive presence expert specializing in communications, gravitas, and appearance. She is a seasoned professional with more than 25 years of specialized experience in human resource management and corporate protocol. Terri is also a veteran of the United States Army, with service in domestic and international assignments. As the President and Founder of Panache Career Strategies, LLC, Terri L. Williams leads Executive Presence training programs and seminars that can help you to improve your skills. A leader in facilitating the “gold standard” in a wide range of services focused on solutions for individual, group, customized programs, seminars and keynote speeches. Working with leaders and executives Panache Career Strategies, LLC will support their executive presence goals in communications and gravitas.

Copyright © 2015 Panache Career Strategies with exclusive rights from Corporate Class, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


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