Face value

Millions will listen to Thursday night's debate. But not all the communication is verbal.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Well, there they go again. The major-party candidates for president will bound onto the dais Thursday night, each out to deliver a mix of policy proclamations and memorable ad libs that will sway undecideds and secure their place in supporters' hearts.

They'll be paying attention to their "visuals," too - and not just when they pick their ties.

That's essential. As an arena for comparative scrutiny, nothing beats head-to-head debates. And when the first of three airs Thursday night from the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., viewers will be intensely auditing the nonverbal dimension, experts say.

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There's a lot to consider.

"Bush does smirk," allows Dan Hill, founder of Sensory Logic, a St. Paul, Minn., firm that uses facial analysis to study subtle human emotions. "It's the delicate balance between assurance and arrogant cockiness." The president's face also sometimes betrays surprise, Mr. Hill writes in an e-mail.

"[Thursday night] I expect the usual touches of purposeful anger, the sunshine of social and genuine smiles, and the almost inevitable smirk," Hill writes. "The trick is to avoid [a look of] fear most of all, and downplay the smirk.

"For Kerry, the problem is the arching inner eyebrow, especially the right one, which is a facial-muscle activity that correlates to fear and sadness," and may suggest indecisiveness, writes Hill, who notes that Senator Kerry has more recently drummed up more deliberate expressions of anger.

Kerry will need to work in "a little more sunshine," according to Hill, but also allow flashes of anger and disgust.

In a country where public perception has a way of hardening into a kind of reality, a clenched hand or backward lean can carry meaning. Content counts, but presentation is remembered - particularly when it is poor.

Perspiration and a 5 o'clock shadow arguably cost Richard Nixon a key television debate against John F. Kennedy in 1960. By most accounts, a folksy Jimmy Carter got the better of Gerald Ford in 1976. In the run-up to 2000, Al Gore's pedantic, "wooden" bearing thrilled impersonators, but perhaps kept some voters from warming up to him.

This matchup will showcase two men angling for empathy, and for a glint of the "I'm real" aura that won true believers for Presidents Reagan and Clinton.

"The viewer has to believe that the candidate believes what he's saying," says Donald Rosenthal, president of Gant & Donald Communications in Carson City, Nev. The candidate who makes his case always does so with nonverbal skills, he adds - and always wins.

Ironically, says Mr. Rosenthal, achieving "authenticity" may require that candidates override involuntary tendencies involving the five "channels" through which meaning is projected - face, hands, arms, legs, and body angle - and also force some moves that don't come naturally.

Rosenthal cites a miscue by Kerry in a recent foreign-policy speech. "Somebody coached him to put his hands to his chest," Rosenthal says, and he did so during a recitation of facts. It's a move Mr. Clinton used with success in other situations - hand went to heart, whenever Clinton "felt your pain."

"[But] if it's not an emotional issue, it seems out of place," says Rosenthal, who also hits Kerry on body angle - too upright, implying neutrality, where Mr. Bush seems to understand the value of leaning chummily toward the listener, palms open.

"The key is discrepancies between expression, gesture, voice, and words, or any two of them," says Paul Ekman, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California Medical School, San Francisco, and author of "Emotions Revealed." But without specialized training, Dr. Ekman notes, viewers will find such disconnects hard to spot.

These debates present the most difficult reads, he says, "two performers who have had a lot of experience in such situations, each of whom is highly rehearsed."

Still, some of what viewers will see reflects ingrained traits of each man.

Bush, says Rosenthal, doesn't seem to take himself quite as seriously. "He has what's called the zygomatic smile at times, a genuine, sincere, honest smile. For Kerry, it almost seems as if smiling is a painful act."

Then there are the old debaters' devices. Rosenthal - who uses a stopwatch to monitor eye-blink rates - wonders whether either candidate will summon "the steeple" - pressing fingertips together in a move courtroom lawyers employ to show precise thinking. It's really a listener's pose, he says, like striking the "Thinker" pose, cradling the chin - the only time a debater can touch his face without signaling deception.

Listeners won't be visible in these debates. Cutaway shots - to the candidate not speaking, or to the audience - are forbidden, as are still photos shot from the wings. Such rules, set out in a 32-page memorandum by the Bush and Kerry teams, are meant in part to lessen the impact of body language.

That doesn't mean it won't be scrutinized - or shouldn't be. "Politics is about forging alliances and working with people," maintains Hill. "How people relate to others - including through the expressions on their faces - is a true factor."

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