The Camera and Brett Kavanaugh

The fight over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh was the ugliest confirmation process for an American Supreme Court Justice that I have seen. I’m not American, but I am a lawyer, and I thought it was a sad indictment on how politicized the American legal system has become. A thoughtful, independent judiciary is a cornerstone of any healthy democracy.

If you followed the hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, you are undoubtedly aware of the allegations of sexual assault that were brought against Kavanaugh by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and others. In response to those allegations, the FBI was ordered to carry out an investigation that was extremely limited in scope and time. When, predictably, it found no evidence to corroborate the allegations, Kavanaugh was confirmed as the newest Supreme Court Justice by a narrow 51-49 majority in the Senate.

I watched the testimony of both Kavanaugh and Blasey Ford and in my opinion, the latter was the more credible of the two. Quite simply, I believed her. Having said that, I also acknowledge that, from a legal standpoint, there was not enough evidence before the Senate Judiciary Committee to prove, to the requisite standard, that Kavanaugh was guilty of the crime he was alleged to have committed.

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Nonetheless, I believe that his demeanour during the hearings was sufficient to disqualify him from a seat on the Supreme Court. I found many of his answers to questions from the Senators to be evasive, disrespectful or both. Further, his opening statement was full of vitriol that included outright attacks on certain members of the government. Yes, Kavanaugh was under tremendous pressure, but that is when you see a person’s true character. And when it comes to character, a country has to hold its judges to the highest standards.

Now, although this blog does venture into politics from time to time, that is not its purpose. The focus is on public speaking. So how does the Kavanaugh nomination fit? It has to do with the vote against his nomination by North Dakota Democratic Senator, Heidi Heitkamp.

Heitkamp was one of only three Democratic Senators who voted to confirm Donald Trump’s previous Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch. And she was initially inclined to vote the same way on Kavanaugh. Even when Blasey Ford brought forth her allegations, Heitkamp was concerned but still inclined to give Kavanaugh the benefit of the doubt.

Nevertheless, she watched the special hearing during which both Kavanaugh and Blasey Ford testified. After the hearing ended, Heitkamp changed her mind and decided to vote against Kavanaugh. Here is an excerpt from a CNN article that provides part of the rationale for Heitcamp’s decision:

Senator Heidi Heitkamp

She watched Ford’s testimony. And then she watched Kavanaugh’s. And then she watched Kavanaugh’s again, but this time, with the sound off.

“It’s something I do,” she said, “We communicate not only with words, but with our body language and demeanor.”

“I saw somebody who was very angry, who was very nervous, and I saw rage that a lot of people said, ‘Well of course you’re going to see rage; he’s being falsely accused,’ but it is at all times you’re to acquit yourself with a demeanor that’s becoming of the court,” Heitkamp said.

I found it interesting that after watching and listening to Kavanaugh’s testimony, Heitkamp watched it again but without the sound. 

When you watch a video without sound, you have no choice but to focus on the visual. If you watch the video of a speech or presentation without the sound, you have to focus on things like the speaker’s facial expressions, gestures and movements.

Clients often ask me whether they should practice their speeches in front of a mirror. I tell them no, because you end up trying to watch yourself when you should be focused on your message and the audience, and it feels unnatural. It’s much better to film yourself and then watch the video.

If you want to get the maximum benefit from video, you should use it three ways:

1. Play the video but don’t watch it. Just listen. You will have to focus on your voice and things such as pace, rhythm, pauses, clarity, emphasis, intonation and articulation.

2.  Play the video and turn the volume off. Just watch. You will have to focus on your body language. Where are you looking? How are you standing and moving? What are you doing with your hands?

3.  Watch the video with sound to get the complete picture.

It’s not easy to watch yourself on video—I still cringe whenever I watch myself—but it is a great way to get unvarnished feedback.

Clearly, when deciding whether to appoint someone to the Supreme Court, you have to do a lot more than watch a video without the sound. There are a myriad of complex considerations that one has to take into account, including the candidate’s judicial record. But temperament and personality are also considerations and those qualities are transmitted through voice and body language.

In the same way, your audience will form an impression about you and your message based on content and structure, but also by how you hold yourself on stage. Your facial expressions, your gestures and your movements all communicate something to the audience. To see what they saw, have a look at the video.


About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
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9 Responses to The Camera and Brett Kavanaugh

  1. Steven King says:

    I believe it is a sad indictment of the entire process that unfounded, uncorroborated claims can be raised decades after an alleged event, and most liberals are aghast that Kavanaugh was “angry” in his retort.

    A man successfully navigated his entire career and is reviewed for his profession’s highest honor. His family, including his 10-year-old daughter, is vilified on the altar of public opinion with extremely suspicious timing. Why is anyone surprised or shocked that this man would respond against the vitriol which was levied against him? Baseless and uncorroborated accusations, conveniently timed as a conservative is nominated for the bench, should be seen for the load of bologna it was.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Sorry, Steven but we will have to disagree. I believe your argument is flawed for several reasons.

      First, the reasons why victims of sexual assault often don’t come forward with accusations for years — if ever — are well known and well documented. That Kavanaugh’s appointment was the catalyst to move Ford to say something cannot be held against her.

      Second, Ford was not the only one to come forward with allegations. At least two other women came forward as well. And, several of Kavanaugh’s school mates, including some from Yale, said that he lied several times during the hearing.

      Third, I agree that Ford’s allegation was uncorroborated. That is what the supplemental FBI investigation was supposed to do: see if Ford’s allegation could be corroborated. But, as is well known, the White House authorized a truncated investigation and precluded the FBI from speaking to certain witnesses, including Ford and Kavanaugh. What did you expect the investigation to find when it was railroaded towards a single conclusion? No, the investigation was a sham and designed to give a veneer of justice to an otherwise shameful display of partisanship. It’s ironic that Republicans had no problem sitting on a vacant Supreme Court seat for eight months when Obama nominated Merrick Garland, but now, suddenly, there is an urgency to rush Kavanaugh through. Please.

      Finally, as I said in the post, Kavanaugh had the right to be angry, but how he expressed that anger was telling. I stand by my assertion that is behaviour fell far short of what one would expect of a Supreme Court Justice.

      So yes, it is a sad indictment of the process, but not for the reasons you state.

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  3. Cary Nusslock says:

    Did you and Heidi also watch Ford without sound, or just Kavanaugh?

    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi Cary. I didn’t watch either Ford or Kavanaugh without sound. I don’t know whether Heitkamp watched any of Ford’s testimony without sound, but given that I’ve only seen her comments about Kavanaugh, I suspect not.

    • PK Read says:

      Ford wasn’t testifying for a spot on the Supreme Court, Kavanaugh was. So whether you believed Ford or not, what’s really relevant is how Kavanaugh responded – not just to the charges at hand, but to the process and committee itself. And yes, watching him without sound (which I did before reading about Heitkamp doing the same thing) was like watching an angry, petulant, tearful, manipulative teenager. If you took his appearance at face value, he didn’t look like a grown, professional, experienced man in control of his reactions. If you took the appearance as a performance piece, it looked like someone pretending to throw a tearful tantrum. I don’t know anything about Kavanaugh’s history, but his appearance (sound off and sound on) didn’t come across as very…judicious.

      • John Zimmer says:

        Completely agree, Paula. Even if one assumes that Ford’s allegations are completely unfounded, Kavanaugh’s demeanour and behaviour towards some of the Senators revealed a person unfit to serve as a Justice on the highest court in the land.

        • PK Read says:

          I had the sense that the entire performance was very calculated, and that the approach he took has worked for him before. It astonishes me that something so transparently aggressive and fabricated worked – but then, his confirmation was all but a foregone conclusion in the first place.

        • John Zimmer says:

          Yes and that is the most disconcerting thing of all. The Supreme Court should be one of the most sacrosanct institutions in a democracy, free from interference by politicians. Positions should be filled based on who is the best person available, not who is the person most likely to vote the way my party wants. Killing the 60-vote rule — and yes, the Democrats did the same thing with the appointment of federal judges — has all but ensured that partisan politics will prevail instead of reasoned compromise to find the best candidate. Sadly, it’s just another example of the erosion of America. The mid-terms in November loom even larger.

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