Carly Fiorina: Style Over Substance

This blog was originally published on Forbes as Carly Fiorina: Style Over Substance on Tuesday, August 25, 2015.

Although Carly Fiorina’s performance in the Republican presidential debate earlier this month drew extensive attention and praise in the media—accompanied by a jump in the aggregate national public opinion polls from less than one point to 4.3 in one week and to 6.3 points the following week—her tenure as the CEO of Hewlett-Packard was, as the New York Times described it, “not so sterling.”

In a current Fortune magazine article, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a dean at the Yale School of Management, wrote that the HP Board of Directors fired her because of her “ill-conceived, controversial acquisition of Compaq Computer in 2002…shareholder wealth at HP was sliced 52% under her reign.” Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. of the Wall Street Journal was more understanding. In his column, he noted that Ms. Fiorina, who started at HP in 1999, “had the misfortune to arrive eight months before the tech bubble burst,” and he admired “the grit with which she forged ahead.”

In the Republican debate, she also had the misfortune to be relegated to what became known as the “kiddie’s table,” an early evening match which preceded the prime time debate (that drew a record-breaking 24 million viewers) among 10 higher-ranked candidates. But in her undercard session, Ms. Fiorina forged ahead with half a dozen rhetorical style points to offset the controversy about the substance of her HP term:

  • Messaging: Having never held elective office, Ms. Fiorina has decided to run on her executive experience. During the debate, she had eight opportunities to speak and used variations of the word “lead” twelve times.
  • Time Management: In each of her eight turns, she was crisp, clear, and succinct. Only once did she run past the timing bell.
  • Voter Empathy: Given the focus on women’s issues in this campaign, one of her statements was, “I started as a secretary and became ultimately the chief executive of the largest technology company in the world.”
  • Credibility: Aristotle identified ethos, or credibility, as an essential element of persuasion. Given Ms. Fiorina’s lack of experience in foreign affairs of state, she sought to validate her capability by making references to “my good friend, Bibi Netanyahu” and to “King Abdullah of Jordan, a man I’ve known for a long time.”
  • Rising above the Fray: Throughout the campaign, frontrunner Donald Trump has derided his competitors with direct aggressive attacks. The moderator asked Ms. Fiorina, “[I]s he getting the better of you?” Rather than counterattack—as many of the other candidates have—she replied with a rhetorical question: “Since he has changed his mind on amnesty, on health care and on abortion, I would just ask, what are the principles by which he will govern?”
  • Call to Action: A basic principle of persuasion is to ask for the order and politicians often wield their call to action with sledgehammer force. In her closing statement, Ms. Fiorina chose to make her call to action a soft sell by asking the voters to act: “I am a conservative; I can win this job, I can do this job, I need your help, I need your support. I will, with your help and support, lead the resurgence of this great nation.”

This blog was originally published on Forbes as Carly Fiorina: Style Over Substance on Tuesday, August 25, 2015.