Writing One Thing and Saying Another: It’s Not as Easy as You Think!

Anyone interested in public speaking should take a look at this article from The Atlantic – a fascinating analysis of what Bill Clinton said in his speech at the Democratic National Convention versus what he wrote.  I’d say we can learn lessons from him for our own presentations, but since so much of what he does comes naturally, this may not be possible.  Nevertheless, I will make the attempt by outlining a few specific tactics I noticed:

  • Active Voice:  Clinton’s “on the fly” changes from a more passive to active voice were truly masterful.  Or, I should say, Clinton mastered “on the fly” changes from passive to active voice (that was a passive sentence rewritten in the active voice – get it?).   For example, in the middle of a sentence he changed “how many jobs were saved or created” to “how many jobs he (Obama) saved or created.” One has a mysterious force saving or creating the jobs. The other ties it all back to Obama. It sounds minor, but it packs a powerful rhetorical punch.
  • Painting a Picture:  Whether you agree with the sentiment or not, when he changed “anybody who makes $3 million or more will get a $250,000 tax cut” to “anybody who makes $3 million or more will see their tax bills go down $250,000” he made the issue real. The second sentence paints a picture, right?  You might not like an image of the ultra-rich chortling over their extra income – but it’s an image.
  • Inclusive: Great speakers don’t talk to an audience: they talk to compatriots.  They leave the audience feeling that “we’re all in this (whatever this is) together.”  But you can go overboard with that approach and appear disingenuous or not serious. Clinton struck the right balance by very strategically changing some of the references in his written draft from “the President” to “our President” or from “the country” to “our nation” – but not all of them.
  • Facts and Figures:  Clinton has often been praised for his ability to recall relevant facts and figures from the recesses of his brain at a moment’s notice.  He did just that during his speech, and in the most remarkable ways.  For example, he wrote: “well, since 1961 the Republicans have held the White House 28 years.” He said “well, since 1961, for 52 years now, the Republicans have held the White House 28 years.” Think about how that sentence moves beyond amazing math skills and toward, again, painting a picture. It’s hard to relate to “1961.” The very subtle addition of “for 52 years now” makes all the difference.  

This all sounds simple, but do you know how hard it is to say one thing while reading something different on a teleprompter? And to know, instinctively, when it’s better to say “our” President in order to create a more inclusive feeling, versus “President Obama” for a more formal feeling? And to subtract 2013 (the start of the next term) from 1961 and get “52” – in mid-sentence?

Finally, great speakers know how to make each person in the audience feel as though the speech was for them alone. I think that’s in part because they really think about what the audience wants and needs from the presentation, as opposed to just saying what they want to say. Clinton excels at that.

Again, I’m not sure all these are skills one can learn, but I’m sure going to try.


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