George W. Bush asked Bill Clinton this very question as he prepared to move into the White House in January of 2001. “With all due respect, you used not to be so great a speaker,” Bush told Clinton. (Clinton had delivered a famously dull keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention.) “You’re good now.” What advice, Bush asked, did Clinton have?
As Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy recount in The President’s Club:
The sitting president proceeded to hold a mini-clinic of his own for the new kid: timing, Clinton replied, it’s all in the timing, the pacing, and the careful parsing of the words on the page, letting it unfold like a good sermon or lecture. But Clinton liked what he saw; he said to friends, “Bush really connects.”
Based on watching Clinton over the years, here are strengths that you can develop to communicate like Clinton:
- Listening: Clinton is a great speaker in large measure because he is a great listener. When he speaks, he is present, leaning forward, engaged with the audience in front of him. As his advisers James Carville and Paul Begala once noted, listening is “not a parlor trick for him. He really does listen. He’s one of those rare people who is both hyper-intelligent and always eager to learn new things.” People sense this, and they respond to it.
- Empathy: While “I feel your pain” became a catchphrase for Clinton’s critics, the fact is that millions of Americans believed that Clinton took the time not just to understand but to really feel what it was like to struggle to pay the bills and pay for health care and education. “Tell me how it’s affected you again,” Clinton asked a voter at a 1992 debate, after George H. W. Bush attempted to answer the voter’s question about how the recession had affected him personally. Clinton went on to say that as the governor of Arkansas, when a citizen lost a job, he often knew that person by name. Many years later, when I attended a Clinton speech, he ended his talk by quoting a phrase in Rwanda that translated into “I see you.” Think about all the people you never see, he said, the people who sweep the streets in the morning or would clear the hall of the chairs after all of us left. He asked us that, no matter what we do, that there be “no person whom we do not see.” This has always stayed with me.
- Respect for the Audience: Politicians who speak tend to follow one of two routes: they either speak above the audience in a monotone, with the belief that their own importance and the substance of the issue at hand negates the need to make a speech interesting and understandable — or they go for cheap applause lines. Clinton, however, treats his audience like adults. His speeches are chock full of the minute policy details that pundits may think would bore an audience. But he ensures that the details serve a clear and logical argument with narrative power, an argument that audience members can follow by thinking for themselves. For proof, watch his brilliant speech to the 2012 Democratic National Convention, which came in at almost an hour. He crafted his speech to hold viewers’ attention, but he also trusted that voters would follow his reasoning and handle the details. Some observers may have thought that, midway through the speech, when he transitioned — “Now, let’s talk about the debt!” — viewers would drop. They didn’t.
- Storytelling: Clinton had grown up telling stories. “Social life in my extended family, like that of most people of modest means who grew up in the country, revolved around meals, conversation, and storytelling,” he wrote in his book. “I learned that everyone has a story — of dreams and nightmares, hope and heartache, love and loss, courage and fear, sacrifice and selfishness.” He understood that people understand their lives through stories. By the time he left the White House, Clinton had been in politics for more than two decades, his ability to tell a good story by now a finely-honed craft.
- Reading: For his entire life, Clinton has been a reader, of fiction and history and poetry. By his own account, as a student at Oxford he read “hundreds of books.” When I saw him speak at a Barnes & Noble a few years ago, the Secret Service ushered him out afterward, but he couldn’t help but make them wait while he browsed a couple of books. The ideas and the details that he came across gave shape to his speeches. Whether a big idea that informed his policy approach (such as the articles and books that led to his innovative ideas as Chair of the Democratic Leadership Council and the books such as “Nonzero” that have informed his view of globalization) or a line of poetry that touched a chord or a striking statistic that he knew would surprise everybody who listened, Clinton always had new material because he was always reading.
- Practice: It’s important to note that, as Bush observed, Clinton was widely panned for the biggest speech of his life in 1988, just four years before he took the White House himself. So a lot of giving a good speech, just like so many things in life, is the slow and steady improvement that comes from experience, sensing how your arguments land with an audience, and adjusting and trying a new approach. If you watch some of Barack Obama’s early appearances from the 1990s, you will note a similar evolution. Even Clinton did not become Clinton overnight.
I’d be delighted to see what other people think we can learn from Clinton’s speaking style, and I hope this list offers a good start for you. Good luck!
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