Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Germain Arena in Estero, Fla., on Sept. 19, 2016.
Joe Raedle—Getty Images
By Frank Luntz
September 22, 2016
IDEAS
Luntz is a pollster and communication advisor.  He is conducting focus groups for HBO and Vice News ahead of the 2018 elections. 

Mr. Trump:

I’ll be blunt. Never before have expectations been lower and the stakes higher for a presidential debate candidate than they are for you. The good news: everyone expects you to stumble—even some of the people preparing you for your debate. Your mission now is to move from prosecutor to presidential. Righteous indignation will be appropriate at times, but not all the time. You can’t be the same guy who ridiculed your Republican opponents. That’s not what undecided voters want to hear. Americans know you represent change. This debate is the chance to prove that you can make it happen—and your opponent … can’t.

Read more: How Hillary Clinton Can Defeat Donald Trump in the First Debate

Before I get to specific language, let’s discuss tone. Whether they love you, hate you, or are still looking for a reason to vote for you, everyone wants to tune in to hear what you have to say. So as you walk on the stage, consider this: you do not need to shock with spectacle. You need to surprise with sincerity. Be the voice of the forgotten, hardworking taxpayer that has been ignored and betrayed by Washington. Allow me to be blunt: if you fall back on your old habits from the Republican debates and your off-script, off-the-cuff, off-the-rails personal insults from the campaign trail, you will alienate the cautious, concerned non-Republican voters you need.

Now, a word of warning. Your opponents will attempt to pin you down on the policy nuisances and details of your proposals. Be prepared to defend them. From making Mexico pay for the wall to your ideas for healthcare reform, you must be clear and concise in your explanation. The debate moderators will be tough. They will interrupt. They will demand specifics. Be prepared to provide them.

So let’s start with your opening. You only have two minutes, and you need to show viewers not only that you get it, but that your opponent doesn’t. Millions of voters will focus on the choice in front of them for the first time. So your opening is critical:

At some point early in the debate, perhaps even in response to the first question, you will need to show humility. It’s not enough to be Commander-in-Chief. Voters want to know that there is a heart behind the bluster. So with the parents of the Benghazi victims in the front row (and your family behind them), it’s time to say the words “I apologize.” You’re going to bristle at what I recommend, but please consider it:

You’ll read the word accountability many times in this document because that is your strength and her weakness. Business people are held accountable every single day by customers, employees, and the communities we serve. Politicians? Never. And Hillary Clinton’s consistent, persistent refusal to accept accountability is her downfall. So consider the following when appropriate:

You’ll notice that there are a lot of rhetorical questions in this document. That’s because asking the right questions can be even more powerful than answering them—particularly from someone often seen as too aggressive. If she lets these questions go unanswered, you win.

To be clear, attacking Clinton in every question will not win you the debate, or the election. It is critical for you to understand that the undecideds are more uneasy with your temperament than your policies. But that is also your biggest opportunity. If you tell people exactly what you would do on Day One of your presidency, it will be much easier for skeptical Americans to imagine (and therefore vote for) you as President.

Your single greatest strength is a clear understanding of the principles of business. Apply that skill to the economic issue that more Americans care about than any other: ending wasteful Washington spending. Your “Penny Plan” for deficit reduction, cutting one cent out of every dollar spend on every government program, is a strong first step, but you have to go deeper. Once again, the attribute Americans want more than any other in their government: accountability. The place they want it most: the federal budget. The proposal that will get everyone talking is “a forensic audit of federal government.” So start with a question that you want Americans asking, and then deliver what Americans want most:

The most important moment of the debate is your opening because, frankly, no one knows what you are going to say. As a dealmaker, you know that the next most important moment will be your close, when you get a chance to demonstrate for the last time why America needs a successful businessman now more than ever. Once again, I urge you to personalize your approach, clearly defining the differences between you and your opponent:

Every word in these recommended statements is intentional. It is the language the American people want to hear, but haven’t yet heard from you. Voters respect you when you speak truth to power; they resent you when you stray into personal insults and disrespect. Be presidential. If you strike the right balance, you won’t just exceed expectations. You’ll win the debate—and the election.

This is your moment. Seize it and own it.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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