What Made Clinton's Communication So Good?Steve Adubato, Ph.D.
While the national political conventions are over, people are still talking about the speech made by former President Bill Clinton. It was by any measure exceptional public communication on a huge national stage. Regardless of your politics, there are many things about Clinton’s presentation that provide lessons for all of us. Consider the following tolls and techniques that the former president used that are worth highlighting:
--Repetition. In the same way Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech by repeating that phrase again and again, Clinton repeated the phrase, “I want to nominate a man who…” Clinton continually used this phrase to set up his reasons for nominating President Barack Obama. There is a great lesson here for the rest of us. The key is to find a phrase that begins a sentence and get into a pattern of using that phrase again and again. It is about creating a rhythm that both you and your audience are comfortable with.
--Using “we” and “us” versus “I”. Bill Clinton continually used the “we” and “us” and threw in “y’all” to create an inclusive feeling both for those in the convention hall in Tampa as well as those watching on television. He also continually used the expression, “My fellow Americans.” Too often, public communicators use “I” to start a sentence. They make the message too much about themselves without understanding that the message needs to resonate with their audience. That’s one of the things that makes Clinton a master communicator—his understanding of the need to connect with people on a human, emotional level and the use of such inclusive language helps achieve his goal.
--The Q&A approach. I’ve said it in this column before, but it bears repeating given the Clinton speech. Great communicators know how to use rhetorical questions in their presentations. The former president consistently asked “why?” something was the case and then quickly and confidently answered that question. For example, Clinton asked; “Now why is this true? Why does cooperation work better than constant conflict? Because nobody’s right all the time, and a broken clock is right twice a day.” The reason this Q&A approach is so powerful is because it allows your audience to become more engaged and involved in your presentation. While a speaker is asking the question, “Now why is this true?” the audience is asking themselves this same question. They are wondering why it’s true. It creates anticipation. Further, by using the rhetorical Q&A approach, it allows for a natural communication rhythm that becomes more conversational where a question is asked and then answered.
--Confidence. Clinton’s confidence comes from having done this so many times. There is no substitute for being on your feet and communicating in public again and again. Clinton has made many mistakes as a public speaker. In fact, he made one of the worst convention speeches in modern history just a couple of decades ago. Yet, the key is, he learned from it and that is the lesson here for the rest of us. The more you are on your feet communicating in public, making mistakes and learning, the better you will get and the more confident you will become. Further, the more you communicate in public, the more you realize there are very few things that can go wrong that you won’t be able to handle because they’ve happened before. My sense is that much of Bill Clinton’s confidence comes from communicating so consistently in so many venues in front of so many audiences. For the rest of us who will never speak as often or as eloquently as Bill Clinton, there is still a lesson here. Practice may not make perfect, but practicing your communication will make you a heck of a lot better.
Steve Adubato coaches and speaks on communication and leadership and is author of the new book "What Were They Thinking? Crisis Communication: The Good, the Bad and the Totally Clueless" (Rutgers University Press). Write to him at The Star-Ledger, 1 Star-Ledger Plaza, Newark, NJ 07102, visit his Web site at www.stand-deliver.com, or e-mail him at email@example.com.