Media Strategist Joel Silberman Weighs in on Candidates' Body Language at the Third Presidential Debate

October 20th 2016

Joel Silberman

Last night we witnessed a 90-minute debate that was a tale of two faces.

Trump and Clinton at third presidential debate

A lot has been made about the candidates' body language: Trump's temperament? Can Clinton look "natural"? Television is a visual medium. Often body language will communicate a great deal more than words. We respond to body language viscerally; we process these feelings subconsciously.

Here's what this long-time media strategist and coach saw watching the body language of the candidates at the final debate.

The first 30 minutes of the debate suggested that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump had actually accepted coaching and was trying to practice self control. Yet, from the beginning, I was struck by his nervous tics, his inability to stand still, his grabbing the microphone, his tight slit eyes, and his turned down mouth.


Contrast that to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who looked cool, calm, and happy to be in the debate. She clearly was prepared. Her body was still. Her movements were controlled. She had a serious smile on her face. Her eyes were open. Her listening face was emotionally neutral.

Everything that Trump did physically appeared deliberately distracting. His body and gestures displayed anger and disrespect for Clinton. And no amount of training can make his face less transparent.

Contrast that to Clinton standing relatively still and taking notes. Her note taking could be perceived as an aggressive move to the policy-insecure opponent.

Hillary Clinton takes notes

When we hit minute 10 (at 9:13 p.m. EDT), we heard the first Trump sniff. Trumps breathing is likely an emotional tell. I call it bull snorting. When an animal is excited or frightened they snort. When Trump is emotionally triggered, he sniffs before he speaks. He had his snorts under control for 10 minutes.

That began the unraveling of Trump’s physical control during the debate: beginning slowly at first, then leaning into the microphone, and finally, by minute 30, he appeared physically unlikable. When Trump leads with his chin, it shows his anger. When he pulls his chin back, he shows disdain.

For most of the 90 minutes, Clinton remained in physical control, showing only a few flashes of anger in her face. Her tell is that when she thinks, her body doesn’t show emotion. That can be disconcerting to the viewer because they don’t see what she is feeling. Many times that visual emotional neutrality is perceived as not being authentic, because the viewer can’t immediately label it.

Clinton’s position at the podium again showed her training. She was even all the way through the debate, she stayed centered, and when he was said things that angered her, she smiled. That counterintuitive smile tells the viewer that she got him to take the bait.

So, in the final analysis, Secretary Clinton’s body and face language was secure and steady. Mr Trump’s body and face language was both defensive and bullying. To their respective followers, the candidates were exactly what they wanted them to be, but to people who did not know them, Trump may look unhinged.

If you are curious about my analysis, watch the debate on YouTube with the sound muted. I do it with my clients and it reveals more about them than anything that they say. In short, the mouth speaks, but the body tells.

Joel Silberman is a distinguished media critic, expert, and strategist as well as the author of the upcoming book "Politics Is Theater With Real Bullets."