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Move To Win

December 12, 2007

Three academics specializing in Laban dance technique are analyzing the ways in which political candidates use their bodies as a way of understanding what it is about physicality that may or may not make a candidate appeal to voters. Karen Studd, Jan Whitener and Karen Bradley have formed a consulting firm called Move To Win to help people (including political hopefuls) hone their body language for success.

With politics being all about performance and our society becoming increasingly visual with each passing year, it makes sense that body language should be so integral to politicians' ability to communicate their messages and touch listeners.

For a story for The Washington Post, the Labanistas watched and commented on a GOP political debate broadcast via the Spanish-speaking TV channel, Univision. None of the Laban specialists speak Spanish, so the dubbing forced them to focus entirely on the politicians' movement.

Here are some edited highlights of Studd, Whitener and Bradley's observations in the article:

Mike Huckabee: It's not any one trick or gimmick; he's simply the most "integrative" guy in the race, the professors say. Talking about the need for preventive health care, he moves his hand forward and brings his body's full weight along, his eyebrows lifting in perfect synchronicity. The message? "That all of him is invested," says Studd.

John McCain: The man doesn't move a whole heck of a lot -- understandable, given the injuries he suffered as a POW in Vietnam. Except for the occasional chopping hand gesture, he's got both arms on the podium, bracing. Does that make him boring? Undynamic? Hardly, Studd says. "He's a pyramid -- the most stable shape in nature."

Mitt Romney: Well, he's certainly sending some interesting signals. He's praising the work ethic of immigrants, especially those who seek legal status through proper channels, but he's doing this with his chin coyly tucked, a smile dancing on his lips, his eyes twinkling up from under his brow. "He's doing courtship things," says Bradley. "It's almost like he's going to wink at you." "He's cute," says Whitener. "He's so focused on you, he's not seeing anyone else in the room and -- well, you'd just want to go out with him!" "Clinton had a lot of that," Bradley scoffs.

Rudy Giuliani: Where Huckabee is expansive and McCain establishes a solid perimeter, Giuliani keeps his frame narrow and controlled. His gestures are often at odds -- hands spread wide while his head moves forward -- and with pinched expressions and a habit of pointing, he has a tendency to look "schoolmarmish," says Studd.

Fred Thompson: He's the actor, but his face -- forever fixed in an expression of concern -- isn't nearly as malleable as Huckabee's. His head droops, his hands don't move. "Whatever he's talking about here, he's not selling it," says Bradley. "He doesn't even seem interested in selling it." On the question of when to leave Iraq, he makes a pushing gesture that seems to the profs as if he's pushing the problem away from himself.

Duncan Hunter: Swagger is a good thing, right? Not when you're swaggering with a backward lean, like Hunter, who has a way of gesturing off to the side. "It's disdainful," Bradley says. "You get the sense he doesn't listen."

Ron Paul: He's the only candidate who, when he gestures, keeps his fingers loose and wide apart. "There's more thinking than sensing," says Studd. His eyes are alert, but his face barely moves. "He's self-involved," says Bradley. "The focus is inside his own head."As he rages against the flight of jobs overseas, Paul finds his groove. His head lifts, his torso follows, in a rare display of authority and power. For the most part, "he comes across as likable but not authoritative," says Studd. Bradley shrugs. "That may be why people like him."

Move to Win will probably do a roaring trade in the coming months. Though I don't suppose Barack Obama will become a client -- he still thinks that it's possible to divorce politics from performance.

To finish, here's another quote from Bradley (taken from a 2002 Washington Post article about Move to Win):

The pundits can natter on all they want about their pet theories of presidential politics -- the swing states, the health of the markets, the impact of the weather on voter turnout. But after studying 30 years of national campaigns, professor Karen Bradley has it figured out.
"The candidate that has the most shaping ability wins every time," Bradley was telling a crowded lecture hall at the University of Maryland. "Political party doesn't matter."
Shaping ability? You know it when you see it, even if you're not quite aware that you're seeing it. It's the subtle way a person moves his body."

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