What Can We Learn from James Comey?

You don’t have to be a political junkie to have been interested in former FBI Director James Comey’s appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday. And if you are a member of the presentation community, you might have found it utterly fascinating. And illuminating. And educational.

This was the best reality television of the week (sorry Bachelor fans) and I don’t want to gloss over that, because it is actually germane to the topic at hand. You’re not going to find this kind of high drama on our political landscape very often; in fact, some commentators believed that you’d have to go all the way back to the Watergate hearings of the early 1970s to top today’s event. What did he know? When did he know it? Did he really call President Trump a liar? And just how far out could he stick his neck with the entire country (and surely Russia) watching?

How many of you have had to speak in public with those kind of stakes? I’m not raising my hand.

Credibility

I’m not going to bury the lead here: I was enormously impressed with Comey’s performance. This man has had few friends of late, with both major parties reserving fury and outrage for him over his 11th hour announcements during election season. Then he was allegedly courted, threatened, and fired by the president of the United States. And finally, asked to appear before this panel to explain himself. That would be a tough career, let alone a few months.

And yet he appeared willingly, no subpoena, entered the room without an army of handlers, had no attorney seated next to him whispering in his ear, and spoke from no carefully-crafted written speech. His voice never wavered, never quivered, he showed no signs of impatience or exasperation (even when Senator McCain was asking him stupefying and incomprehensible questions), and he dodged very few questions.

Was he telling the truth? His remarks were so consistent and delivered with such confidence, I would conclude that either yes, he was, or that he delivered the most exquisitely-prepared lies in history.

Is being expressionless brilliant or boring? In the case of James Comey’s testimony before the senate, it was both.

It was his dearth of emotion that sold me. Despite obvious and uneven bias on the parts of the various senators who questioned him, his demeanor never changed. These television shots might seem boring, but boring is good in this context. Boring suggests a man who has been around the block, is unphased by the acrimony he has endured, and is at peace with his narrative.

His flat delivery was appropriate to the setting, but that doesn’t mean that he was devoid of passion. He recognized the right time to cut through partisan lines and he did not miss the opportunity to show what he really cares about:

“We have this big messy wonderful country where nobody tells us what to think, what to fight about, what to vote for except other Americans. But we’re talking about a foreign government trying to shape the way we think, vote, and act. That is a big deal. It’s not about Republicans or Democrats. They’re coming after America, they want to undermine our credibility in the face the world…And if any Americans were part of helping the Russians do that to us, that is a very big deal.”

Comey’s change in pitch during this passage was subtle but significant. When you start from a monotone baseline, any change in meter is noticeable, and when he said “that is a VERY big deal,” the room fell silent. He owned it.

Takeaway: Credibility can be earned several ways. When the stakes are high, consistency and evenness are like gold.

Candor

Tone aside, Comey came out swinging. In the first 45 seconds, he accused President Trump of defaming both him and the FBI. “Those were lies, plain and simple, and I am so sorry that the FBI workforce had to hear them, and that the American people were told them.”

Comey made the deliberate decision to not dance around these questions, and I predict that will be among the most memorable aspects of his testimony. While stopping short of calling our president a “liar,” he refused to hide behind such hollowed-out phrases as misspeak or misrepresent. No, he went right at it:

Senator Warner: “What was it about that meeting that led you to determine that you needed to [document the conversation]?”

Comey: I was alone with the president of the United States, talking about matters that touch on the FBI’s core responsibility. I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting. That led me to believe I must write it down in a very detailed way.”

Wow.

These are not the words of someone trying to dodge a question. These are the words of someone who wanted to make an emphatic mark on the public record, and in doing so right out of the gate, he spoke truth to power in a way that practically measured seismically. This was all done with that even, flat, emotionless tone of voice.

Takeaway: Don’t risk your key message getting lost because you hope to build suspense. If you have something to say, say it!

Vulnerability

Almost as remarkable was the ways in which Comey expressed his human foibles, and with this he wisely waited until deeper into his testimony. The opportunity came with the question of why Comey allowed himself to be left alone with President Trump when Trump expressed to Comey that General Flynn was “a good guy” and that he hopes that the FBI would go easy on him. I don’t think that Senator Dianne Feinstein intended to throw him a softball; this lioness of the left was ready to publicly crucify Comey last October when he “handed the election to Donald Trump,” as she put it at the time.

Feinstein: “I know the oval office, and I know what happens to people when they walk in. There is a certain amount of intimidation. But why didn’t you stop and say, Mr. President, this is wrong. I cannot discuss this with you?

Comey: “Maybe if I were stronger, I would have. I was so stunned by the conversation, the only thing I could think to say was to agree that ‘he is a good guy.’ Maybe other people would be stronger in that circumstance. Maybe if I did it again, I’d do it better.”

Feinstein: “You told the president, I would see what we could do. What did you mean?”

Comey: “It was kind of a cowardly way of telling him we’re not going to do that.”

This was a perfect display of vulnerability. Well into the second hour, Comey had already established his character and integrity; now was his opportunity to make himself relateable. Who among us wouldn’t be intimidated in the Oval Office? Who among us would be able to fashion an appropriate answer in the moment? This is the kind of thing that would have you formulating responses while lying awake at 3:00a. This is why, to all Seinfeld aficionados, George Castanza turned his car around, drove back to the airport, and flew back to Ohio so he could deliver the retort that he had just thought of five hours later.

Comey admitted not just a professional error in judgment, but a personal failing. He wasn’t strong enough. He was cowardly. I don’t know James Comey well enough to conclude that this was intentional, but either way, he scores points with me. Either his instincts for currying sympathy were exceptional, or his tactical decision was brilliant.

Takeaway: Audiences don’t want perfect presenters; they want people with whom they feel a connection. Few things accomplish that more than contrition and remorse.


There aren’t too many politically-aware American citizens who were not furious with James Comey last fall. His performance this week has invited everyone to see him from a different perspective. That is an impressive accomplishment.

9 Comments

  1. John on Jun 9, 2017 at 9:52 am

    Great observations and takeaways- thanks!

  2. Bill Stein on Jun 9, 2017 at 1:53 pm

    Great article! You hit absolutely everything I was thinking and noted during the hearing. I suppose I had a little extra pride with Comey’s presentation as he was a fellow W&M grad.

  3. Robert Leuze on Jun 9, 2017 at 1:54 pm

    Your commentary on James Comey’s presentation is fascinating and suburb. I hope I’ll keep some of your Takeaway points in mind if and when I’m called upon to make some public remarks.

  4. Ann Duckett on Jun 9, 2017 at 2:12 pm

    You are incredibly out-of-touch with regular folks out here in the working world. This whole partisan theatrical show going on in Washington DC is not relevant to our lives. The political and media sub-cultures think that this “resist” campaign is being carefully followed by everyone in America. NOT TRUE. Very soon, all of you need to move on, or the next election loss for the “whining resisters” will be bigger than November 2016.

    With everything that is on the “to do list” for our country, this fixation on ending Trump’s presidency is increasingly being viewed as intentionally trying to hurt our country.

    • John Callahan on Jun 9, 2017 at 9:27 pm

      What does this comment have to do with Comey’s presentation style and delivery? Nothing. This is a great observation of a skillful experienced investigator and case builder. He knew what he was doing. Yes, it was theatre but the best kind. Clear communication is theatre.

    • Al Cohen on Jun 11, 2017 at 12:32 pm

      Perhaps if there is nothing to see here, he can release his tax returns, like every other President in 50 years and go under oath and testify about Russia. When the head of the FBI says that he spoke with the President 9 times and he never once asked how the investigation into Russia meddling in our elections was progressing, it doesn’t give you pause? Agree lots to do for the country, restoring faith in our institutions is right up there.

  5. Nancy Marx on Jun 10, 2017 at 8:04 am

    This was a really insightful article. I enjoyed reading your perspective as a presenter viewing this historic testimony, and you really captured the essence of James Comey. Although I found his actions last year to be infuriating, I believe he is an honest public servant, struggling to do the right thing.

  6. Ann Duckett on Jun 12, 2017 at 7:03 am

    Incredible ego on display and self-congratulatory behavior on your part. You are the perfect example of that definition we have all heard about the word “assume” and the first 3 letters.

    Being dismissive while patting yourself on the back when someone is critical of your writings is one way to handle criticism; but all it does is expose your intellectual vacuity. Engaging with someone who disagrees with you, rather than your back-handed insult, would have been impressive. Unfortunately, very seldom can someone of your obvious philosophical bent actually “engage” in a reasonable intelligent exchange of ideas.

    Since you are unlikely to have a background/experience in the political world, your assumption that you can offer advice and commentary that is practical and helpful to others is incredibly egotistical and fanciful.

    • Rick Altman on Jun 12, 2017 at 7:04 am

      I will resist speculating on how your conclusions about me could be anything other than blatant stereotyping and bald prejudice. I am more interested in how you reached all of those conclusions in the first place, based on my response to you: “I’m glad that I got you thinking.”

      From that simple response, you saw fit to: comment on my ego, call me an ass, accuse me of dismissing you, question my intellectual acumen, challenge my background, and accuse me of fantasy.

      Those are some pretty powerful deductions.

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