Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Bill Clinton is a great talker. He’s that big game player that every coach desires, the one who will show up and deliver in the clutch, no matter the game or the conditions or the opponent. He’s that good, and a public speaking tour de force that everyone can learn from — and should.
But even a master like Clinton has had his share of speaking fails, and was nearly booed off the stage during his speech to the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. He was a relative unknown back then, and scheduled to speak for 15 minutes. But he droned on for over a half-hour and barely got an applause until he finally said, “and in conclusion…..”
Many wrote him off as a national player after that, but the Comeback Kid learned how one speech can sink you, and focused like a laser beam on improving his communications skills.
At a Democratic Leadership Council convention in May of 1991, Clinton stood before a crowd in Cleveland and delivered his vision of a resurgent Democratic Party. The Democrats were struggling at the time, but Clinton passionately sold his party on a new moderate message.
“We have got to have a message that touches everybody, that makes sense to everybody, that goes beyond the stale orthodoxies of left and right, one that resonates with the real concerns of ordinary Americans, with their hopes and their fears,” Clinton said.
Two months later he announced his candidacy for the White House and the passion he showed in this speech no doubt helped him get there.
24 years ago, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush fielded a question in the 1992 presidential town hall debate from a woman who asked how the national debt affected them personally.
While Bush checked his watch and muttered through an explanation of how price hikes “affect everyone,” Clinton walked right to the edge of the stage to the woman who asked the question, looked her in the eye, and asked her how the debt affected her. He explained how, as the governor of Arkansas, he’d seen the people in his state suffer, and how much of an impact it had on him.
His response stood as an iconic moment in the long history of presidential debates, and a great reminder of the importance of knowing who your audience is — and relating to them.
The chance to see any president preparing for a speech is rare. But thanks to this Youtube poster who claims to have hacked into the live feed from the Oval Office, we get to see President Clinton in the final minutes before he addressed the nation live in 1993.
It’s not only a rare glimpse into a presidential behind-the-scenes moment, but a fascinating look at Clinton rehearsing his script while making sure all the logistics work, as a make-up artist pats his face. And all with the kind of calm you wouldn’t expect, including a photo-bombing Stephanopoulos.
Clinton’s 2012 Convention speech is both a seminar and a reminder of why we should love civic debates and a true feast for any student of public speaking.
He was at the top of his game. He made arguments. He talked through his reasoning, going point by point through the case he wanted to make. And he kept telling the audience he was talking to them and he wanted them to listen.
In an age when so many political speeches are pure acts of rhetoric and devoid of informational value, Clinton delivered both style and substance with remarkable looseness and the kind of intimacy that powerfully draws listeners in.
So, how does he do it? Here are 8 of Bill Clinton’s most powerful tools:
1. THE POWER OF WORDS
Words hold weight when they stand alone and Clinton squeezes every word for maximum impact. He pauses before saying them, then enunciates and repeats them. He also isn’t afraid of dead air and masterfully uses pauses to control the energy and gain drama.
- “We’re going to keep President Obama on. the. job.”
- “Listen to me now. (pause) No president, (pause) not me, (pause) not any of my predecessors, (pause) no one could have fully repaired all the damage…..”
2. COMPELLING BODY LANGUAGE
Bill Clinton doesn’t need visuals, because he himself is his best visual aid. His arm movements are open and wide, relaying an image of accessibility and authenticity. He overlaps his hands in front of his chest to reinforce intimate statements such as, “This is personal to me…”
In earlier years, his index fingers served as tireless pointers, but he uses less of the short, jabbing motion familiar in the past. He now lets his index finger flow through the air, with an element of inclusion, as he says things like: “And I hope you and every American remembers…”
Clinton strengthens his points by setting up contrasts — placing words or ideas in contrast or opposition. He does it constructively and with a didactic act of persuasion. It was one of Lincoln’s favorite tools, in unforgettable lines such as:
- “the world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here” and “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”
In his 1996 acceptance speech, Clinton created an optimistic metaphor for his second term: “We need to build a bridge to the future…. So tonight let us resolve to build that bridge to the twenty-first century.” He repeated the bridge metaphor in various forms two dozen times.
In his 2000 convention speech for Obama, widely considered the best speech of both conventions, Clinton repeated the word “arithmetic” six times to drive home his point that the Republican budget doesn’t add up.
5. INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE
There’s a reason Clinton uses the pronouns “we,” “us” and “y’all” often, and the phrase “my fellow Americans.” Because it’s language that displays partnership and includes everyone. It doesn’t stereotype, demean, or patronize people. His use of null words such as “now” at the start of an idea also reminds both him and the audience that they’re having a conversation.
- “Now folks, this is serious.”
- “Now, we all know that…”
6. QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Clinton doesn’t just pose questions; he answers them. And like a good journalist, he asks a lot of “why” questions, and always answers them with a sense of confidence and hope.
- “Are we where we want to be? Is the President satisfied? Are we better off than we were when he took office?” — “Yes!”
Your style is your brand, and Clinton has mastered his folksy conversational style that engages people and draws them right in, like a heap of warm butter. And just like Ronald Reagan, Clinton often introduces his arguments with folksy asides. Before criticizing today’s Republicans, Clinton began by ad-libbing: “Now, there’s something I’ve noticed lately, You probably have, too.”
No one is a natural born communicator, not even Clinton. He had a lot of blunders and flat-out boring speeches before he became the master orator he is. But all the practice paid off, and you can check out what he told Jon Stewart about the weeks and weeks of preparation for his 2012 convention speech, which many feel is one of the best speeches of all time.