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How Carly Fiorina’s timing and body language helped her score big in the GOP debate

Carly Fiorina at the second GOP debateCarly Fiorina at the second GOP debate
Carly Fiorina at the second GOP debatePhotograph by Justin Sullivan — Getty Images

Donald Trump’s quips, labels, and tough-guy stares may have worked in the first Republican debate, but those tactics missed the mark in Wednesday night’s round two at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley. And, ironically, it was a woman who delivered the most potent jabs to the former owner of the Miss Universe pageant.

Part of the reason Carly Fiorina was able to take on Trump is because she is a woman—the brash billionaire knew he was already up against the ropes with many female voters and that he best tread carefully. But her success owes as much, if not more, to the fact that she she was well-versed and articulate on the issues, as well as strategically masterful. Her control and timing were on point: Even though she had previously promised Trump that he would “hearing quite a lot” from her, Fiorina didn’t go in for a quick knockout. Instead, she hung back, repeatedly refusing to take the bait from the moderators and rising above much of the bickering.

In the early going, Fiorina was asked whether she was nervous about a possible President Trump being in charge of the nuclear codes. Rather than attack, she said that decision was up to the voters. Applause. Then, when asked about Trump’s harsh stance on immigration issues, Fiorina redirected the question to focus on the Democrats’ failings.

She held fire for a big moment: CNN’s Jake Tapper asked the former Hewlett-Packard CEO about Trump’s infamous Rolling Stone interview, in which he was quoted as saying of Fiorina, “Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that?” Without looking at Trump, Fiorina said firmly, calmly, “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.” It was a quick, perfectly aimed blow. And when Trump tailgated with a compliment about her looks, Fiorina she didn’t smile and she didn’t flinch.

The two later got into a real rumble over their business track records, with Trump criticizing Fiorina’s tenure at HP, and former CEO going after Trump for his bankruptcy history. Here, Fiorina again won the image war: The already ruddy-faced developer turned crimson, while Fiorina looked unfazed. Her body language also outperformed Trump’s. Over and over, cutaway shots showed an upright Fiorina listening attentively to other candidates, while Trump gazed off into space.

Yet, while Fiorina performed well, there is room for improvement, particularly in the critical “likability” arena. Aiming to show that she won’t roll over for anyone, she came across tough—perhaps even too tough. She demanded the floor, and when she got it, she confidently delivered a strong message. But people also want to see candidates express a range of emotions. They look for spontaneous humor, which we saw on Wednesday from Chris Christie, Marco Rubio and, yes, Trump.

Of course, voters also look for compassion in leaders. Fiorina did express her horror when she talked about abortion. And perhaps most notably, she shared her pain at having “buried a child to drug addiction.” Sharing personal feelings and emotions is vital for all candidates, but it is often a tricky subject for women leaders, who may be concerned that it will be perceived as weakness.

Indeed, I believe Fiorina was so focused on showing strength on Wednesday that she lost the chance to show what leaders—both men and women—often miss: a winning smile.

Mary Civiello is an executive communications coach who works with leaders at some of the world’s largest businesses and not-for-profit organizations, as well as high-profile startups. She is also author of Communication Counts: Business Presentations for Busy People. Previously, she was a reporter and anchor at NBC in New York.

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