Christie’s Challenge

Politics Provides Presentation Lessons

by Jerry Weissman

The rollercoaster race for the Republican nominee for president in the 2012 election has produced dizzying rises and precipitous falls for Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry. Although struggling to right their listing campaigns, they are both still in play—along with Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, and last week’s candidate du jour, Herman Cain. With no clear leader, however, the GOP faithful and the media are looking for yet another fresh face. This week’s candidate du jour—after a rousing rally-the-party-and-bash-Obama speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California—is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

Mr. Christie has yet to declare officially, but this has not stopped a deluge of opinions and advice from diverse factions within the party, from the other candidates, and from the media. These opinions range from serious considerations about Mr. Christie’s positions on major issues to silly prattle about his weight. Sitting in the middle of these two polar opposites is the more urgent compressed time factor. In the next two weeks, there will be two more nationally-televised debates among the declared candidates. In three months, with three major holidays intervening, the first primary elections will take place. Mr. Christie has yet to develop position papers, assemble a funding committee, or build a campaign organization.

All these risk factors have prompted Mr. Christie’s supporters—among them Ari Fleischer, the former Bush White House press secretary—to urge him not to run. In a blog post on CNN, Mr. Fleischer identified several pitfalls—each of which has application to business and to presentations. Mr. Fleisher’s words about Mr. Christie are in italics, the lessons for you are in regular font:

  • Does he know the issues? Debate preparation is time-intensive — and that means time he’s not raising money, returning calls, or hitting the campaign trail.

Presentation preparation is time-intensive, too, yet presenters all too often relegate theirs to the eleventh hour, after their email, phone calls, and meetings.

  • One False Step: Everything he does will be magnified by the media, turning small stumbles into giant falls. Just as they’re hyping his candidacy now, the press will overhype his (inevitable) mistakes the moment he declares.

In this day and age of Sarbanes-Oxley, the market and the media are unforgiving of corporate mistakes. One small misstep can tank a stock. On the other hand, slips in presentations are forgivable. It’s the human factor. When a presenter stumbles, the audience—who has been there, done that—can relate and be accepting.

  • He didn’t return my call: In the aftermath of an announcement, he’ll get flooded with calls from important people who want to talk to him and his not-yet-existent campaign staff…But when no one returns their calls, because there is no organization and no time, it won’t take long for grumbling to begin.

Just as politicians must be responsive to their supporters and the media, so must presenters. But unlike politicians who are not always responsive to questions, every presenter must answer every question from every audience member.

  • He gave his word: Christie has already said he won’t run. If he changes his mind now, what does it say about his willingness to change his mind on other issues, once his word is given?

Politicians—and lovers and shoppers—can get away with changing their minds, business people cannot. Consistency of message is critical.