Dan Tudor

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October 15th, 2012

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What Presidential Debates Can Teach You About Effective Recruiting

Political junkies and undecided voters aren’t the only ones who should be watching political debates.

College coaches can learn valuable lessons from what they see during campaign season, especially when we’re talking about what to do (and not do) while you are campaigning for your recruit’s vote.  How?  The language and detail that candidates from both parties use to sway voters is the same language and detail that serious college recruiters that should be aware of as they formulate their recruiting messages.  It was true since Kennedy and Nixon first debated on national television, and it holds true today.

And don’t worry: There are plenty of examples, both good and bad, from individuals on both sides of the political fence to learn from.  Here’s a short list of the lessons I think would be important to remember as you go into the heated part of the recruiting season:


If you’re a new or unproven coach or program, you have a higher bar to clear. In other words, you’re going to walk into the conversation with a recruit in a weaker position than some of your more successful or proven competitors.  Such was the case back in 1988, when Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen unleashed one of the most memorable debate moments in television history against his competitor, a young Senator named Dan Quayle.  Quayle looked inexperienced, sounded somewhat inexperienced, and generally seemed out-manned by the more authoritative, older, and seemingly wiser Bentsen.  If you’re a college coach who identifies more with Quayle than Bentsen, you’re going to have to assume that the parents and athletes you are recruiting are going to have serious questions as to why their son or daughter should be placed in your hands.  So ask yourself, “How are we communicating trust and authority to our prospects in the things that we email or talk about with them?”  If you can’t answer that question, stop what you’re doing and take a harder look at your communication, both verbal and non-verbal.  And, take heart: Quayle went on to serve as Vice President to George H.W. Bush as they won the 1988 Presidential election (just don’t ask him to spell potato).

Be funny, and define your perceived weaknesses. Four years earlier, President Reagan was running for re-election against the Democrat challenger, Walter Mondale.  Heading into their second debate, Mondale was gaining momentum and was effectively raising questions about the age and abilities of the sitting President.  Reagin, hailed by historians as “the great communicator”, delivered another memorable debate moment which was funny, and helped define his continuing capabilities as the nation’s leader.  Don’t discount humor in your recruiting approach!  If you can make your prospect laugh, especially if it’s something that is a touchy subject or uncomfortable for you and your program to talk about, you’re going to win over a lot of recruits.  And it’s important to remember that weaknesses, crisis, and tough times can also be effective and compelling recruiting stories that your prospect will rally around if presented correctly (see more on that topic here).

Be funny, yes.  Perceived as “odd”?  No. An example from this recent series of 2012 debates highlights the line that gets crossed when you move from funny to possibly odd.  The recent Vice Presidential debate between Vice President Joe Biden and the Republican Paul Ryan drew headlines because of some of the facial expressions made by Biden during the split-screen television coverage of the debate.  Many analysts said that if someone was listening to the debate on the radio, Biden edged out Ryan as the winner.  To those watching television, polling seemed to indicate that Ryan won.  The point here is that while your information matters, how you present it matters just as much, if not more.  Additionally, how you react to comments from your prospects about the other schools that they are considering is being watched by your recruit and their family: React inappropriately, and it very well could be come back to haunt you.  Based on all of our research, it’s one way many coaches lose prospects to competing programs.

Approach each conversation with passion and engagement. Over on the Presidential side of the debates, Mitt Romney has been criticized for appearing aloof and disconnected from the average voter, hurting his campaign for much of the primary and general election periods.  President Obama was panned in the first 2012 Presidential debate for looking down at his podium and stumbling through some of his answers.  Think you can walk through each recruiting conversation and hope your prospect just appreciates the fact that you emailed them?  Think again.  Show passion every chance you get…your audience is watching.

Presidential campaigns, and the debates that happen during those campaigns, have a lot in common with coaches who are recruiting their prospects.  You need to approach your recruiting strategy in a smart, marketing-oriented fashion if you want to connect sooner and more effectively with the recruits that really matter.

(By the way, I’m Dan Tudor, and I approve this message)

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