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Obama v Romney: Their debating styles


President Obama's poor showing in the first presidential debate was hailed as a turning point in the race for the White House. So how did he and Republican Mitt Romney fare in round two?

The president's performance in the first debate in Denver was so poor that it earned its own nickname: the Rocky Mountain Horror Show.

His habit of looking down at his notes, his often sour mien and his lacklustre demeanour were three criticisms fired in his direction. Meanwhile, Republican Mitt Romney appeared to be dynamic, energetic and relaxed.

All eyes were on the style of their performances in Tuesday night's rematch in New York. We asked the experts how they did.

"Finger-pointing is not something typically I would coach," says body language expert Patti Wood.

"But all the normal rules are off because this was all-out war."

Finger-pointing is an aggressive act that is like brandishing a weapon, she says. With pointed fingers it's a gun and with each jab it's like firing a bullet.

That's not advisable in a town hall-style debate, she says, in case the finger is pointed at the audience. On a subliminal level, people respond to that very negatively, she says.

"It's a primal brain response to the prospect of danger and it could turn off some people watching, in the same way that their circling of each other like predatory animals probably did."

But a hand, palm down and swept through the air, is more like a sword, which is what Mr Romney did several times in Mr Obama's direction, says Ms Wood. While still threatening, it's less obviously so.

Mr Obama maintained eye contact throughout - with Mr Romney, with the audience and with moderator Candy Crowley, says Carl Grecco, who has been a high school debating coach for more than 50 years.

"His head was up a lot more than the first debate. The fact that you're comfortable in your environment is in part decided by the fact you're looking at your audience."

image captionWhat a difference two weeks makes

"Romney was coached to smile as much as possible and to be warm," says Ms Wood. "He was smiling when he listened and appeared warmer and more likeable than Obama."

But Mr Obama was much improved from the first debate, when he was rolling his eyes, dropping his head and adopting a sour expression, she adds.

"This time he kept his face up for the most part, held his body forward, and his 'resting face' was more relaxed.

Mr Romney smiled less as the debate went on, she adds, perhaps because he felt he was losing some of the arguments. And he still has an unappealing habit of occasionally tilting his head and smirking.

The challenge of the town hall format is to be forceful with your opponent but not to the people asking the questions from the floor, says Ms Wood, author of Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language and Charisma.

"Romney did that, either by looking behind at Obama or by gesturing behind when talking about him, as if to say 'I'm saying this about Obama'," she says.

"He is saying 'We are in on the fact that the bad guy is behind me.'

image captionRomney brought the audience into his attacks on Obama

"Obama wasn't as good at this, because he would talk about Romney while looking out front, at the audience."

"Sometimes Romney wasn't quite sure what to do when it wasn't his turn to talk," says Anthony Meindl, who runs an acting workshop in Los Angeles.

"Romney just stood there and he wasn't confident in his body gestures, which said 'What do I do?' As a viewer I was uncomfortable looking at him."

In contrast, says Mr Meindl, Mr Obama adopted a strategy early on in the debate of walking back to sit down after he had answered a question, although he got up from his stool to counter-attack when he felt Mr Romney was intruding his space.

Both men exuded authority and aggression without being disrespectful, says Mr Meindl, who thinks the contest was at times reminiscent of Roman gladiators.

"But there's an intangible quality that certain people like Obama have, which is that you connect with what they are saying on a personal level."

media captionBarack Obama: Libya attack was ''an act of terror''

Mr Romney seldom has a soft voice, says Mr Grecco, and that can mean that he sometimes seems to lack warmth.

Mr Obama can do both voices, he says, a soft one and a strident one, as he did when he was talking about the attacks on the consulate in Libya, which killed four Americans on 11 September.

The voice was soft when he talked about seeing the caskets coming home and meeting the grieving families, says Mr Grecco.

And it became more strident when he attacked Mr Romney as "offensive" for suggesting a cover-up.

Reporting by Tom Geoghegan