This story first appeared in The Dallas Morning News

What connects with political convention viewers?

By Tom Benning; September 5, 2012

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Pony Express is powering one of the signature elements of CNN’s convention coverage: the "dial test" that measures undecided voters’ reactions to the political spectacle.

Southern Methodist University professors Rita Kirk and Dan Schill head the instant feedback effort, employing a simple but illuminating rating system to evaluate speakers’ performances and understand what resonates.

Using rating dials marked with SMU’s Mustang logo, the Dallas duo hopes to elevate analysis beyond the usual partisan punditry.

"It’s hard for voters to sort through the facts," Schill said Wednesday at CNN’s makeshift studio. "It’s hard for them to distill the key moments. The focus group helps viewers at home determine what works and what doesn’t work."

Kirk and Schill first teamed up with CNN in 2007 to produce the real-time reactions to debates and speeches, as the network began enhancing its technological savvy with touch-screen video boards and interactive graphics.

For years, the professors had taken students to conventions, inaugurations and other big events, so they jumped at the opportunity to boost those learning experiences and to collect some data.

"We teach the students the research methodology in class, and then they get a chance to practice it in a real-life setting," Kirk said, noting they brought several SMU students to both conventions this year.

With a rotary dial, viewers rate their feelings on a scale of 1 to 100. It’s a throwback, having been used to audience-test Gone With the Wind and other classic movies.

Kirk and Schill bring together groups of 30 or so undecided voters — this week at the CNN Grill, an exclusive popup restaurant — to watch the speeches and then broadcast their second-by-second responses.

They look at where the focus group congregates — liking or disliking a given theme or rhetorical flourish.

They then feed that info to CNN reporters — allowing them to ask better questions and provide more nuance — and to audiences at home.

"It really engages people in a thoughtful process," Kirk said. "That adds to the body politic if you have more thinking voters."

Kirk and Schill are finding that undecided voters like candidates who talk about specific policy points (lacking in most speeches) and personal family stories (out in full force). They also dislike negative attacks.

More than anything, the professors say that undecided voters are looking for a candidate who connects with them.

"They are waiting to be persuaded," Schill said. "They are seeking out arguments."

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