Inspiring visual presentations
Creativity, presentations, and "design thinking"

Bill Clinton and the art of speaking in a "human voice"

Good presenters are like good bloggers — both speak "in a human voice." Those who speak in a human voice are not afraid to show some emotion. Good presenters emphasize logic, reasoning, and evidence, but they never forget that both they and their audience members are emotional beings. What got me thinking about this (again) was a post on my buddy Sebastiano Mereu's blog. Seabastiano has a video of Bill Clinton laughing it up at the podium with Boris Yeltsin in 1996. As Dan Pink points out in A whole New mind, true laughter can have an amazing impact. Says Pink,

"Laughter is a form of nonverbal communication that conveys empathy and that is even more contagious than the yawn..."
                                                — Dan Pink

This video clip below is a true example of that. I have shown this clip to a few groups now and each time it causes the room to crack up.

Bill Clinton and the art of the connection

No matter your political leanings or what part of the world you may be from, there is no denying that former US President Bill Clinton is one of the most gifted communicators on the planet. There are many reasons why Mr. Clinton is so effective at the podium. Some of the aptitudes that make him so effective are his engaging, "naked," human style, his verbal presentation of clear logic and evidence, as well as his solid storytelling skills such as providing clear examples and painting pictures with his words. Whether it is a speech or an interview, he comes across as articulate and extremely intelligent but without being aloof or pedantic. His style is his own. I am not suggesting you copy his approach or his style, but I am suggesting that you speak in your own natural "in a human voice."

Ideas matter. Evidence matters. Thinking and reasoning matter.
Last week Mr. Clinton gave a speech at his alma mater Georgetown University. You can watch the entire speech in QuickTime on the Georgetown website or watch an excerpt below on YouTube. Here you'll find the transcripts of the talk as well as a link to a longer YouTube version.

What I like here is Clinton's style of speaking from notes rather than reading. The notes keep him on target yet allow him to speak from the heart in "a human voice" while giving many short stories and examples along the way. Those interested in debate or politics, etc. may be interested in the content of the Georgetown talk. As my undergraduate degree was in Philosophy, I am particularly fond of this quote:

"We believe in a politics...dominated by evidence and argument. There is a big difference between a philosophy and an ideology on the right or the left. If you have a philosophy, it generally pushes you in a certain direction or another. But like all philosophers, you want to engage in discussion and argument. You are open to evidence, to new learning. And you are certainly open to debate the practical applications of your philosophy."

"The problem with ideology is if you got an ideology, you already got your mind made up, you know all the answers, and that makes evidence irrelevant and argument a waste of time, so you tend to govern by assertion and attack. The problem with that is that discourages thinking and gives you bad results."
                                                               
— Bill Clinton

Keeping your cool under fire
Take a look at this short interview between a Fox News interviewer and Mr. Clinton. After the interview the media focused on Clinton's irritation, characterizing Clinton as being "furious" and of "losing it" and "having a complete meltdown." So I watched the entire interview to see what all the fuss was about. But I could not see any evidence of a man letting his emotions (anger) getting the best of him. Yes, he got emotional, but did he "have a complete meltdown"? The loaded question was designed to provoke. “Why didn't you do more to put bin Laden and Al Qaeda out of business when you were president?” he asked. This question assumes guilt and is a very different question than, say, "Do you think you did enough?" or "What would you have done differently?" etc. Clinton clearly was not happy with the implied assumption of guilt in the reporter's question (among other things) and he showed his emotions. He's human (what a shock!). But he also gave lucid, clear logical answers. Frankly, I was amazed he could remain so articulate, frank, and informative while being clearly provoked. Watch the interview and decide for yourself. The majority of the interview is in the two parts below:

Clinton interview part I


Clinton interview part II

The sad thing is that the American media did not focus on the content of Clinton's answers, only the "fact" that he "went nuts." Jon Stewart provides some perspective on the fox interview (see the video) as does an editorial piece on MSNBC (see the video).

Jerry Weissman has a great book and DVD with useful tips for keeping your cool under fire. Many of Weisman's video examples are from the world of Washington politics. If you like examining the good and the bad communication styles of US political figures, you may enjoy Weissman's DVD, In The Line of Fire (the book has the same title).

Finally, you may enjoy this Bill Clinton interview with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show from a few weeks ago. Bill Clinton is truly one of the great, engaging "presenters" of our time.

Comments

Dave O.

Excellent post! There is no question that Clinton is the most articulate President in a long while (since Kennedy?).

But what about two other requisites for an effective presenter: honesty and sincerity? Here, on both counts, I would give Clinton much lower marks.

"I never had relations with that woman"- leaves lingering doubts in my mind regarding his honesty and his well known usage of polling data to influence his public positions gives me pause regarding his sincerity.

I'm interested in your take on these two points.
Best,
Dave

hotsauce

I do not think he's-human or he-was-provoked are acceptable reasons for losing your cool under fire. Presenters must be wary of being provoked, and respond in a calm, collected manner. You once posted a video of John Stewart on CrossFire, which I think was the perfect example of someone refusing to be provoked, and instead making his attacker look stupid.

That said, I do not think Clinton "lost it". I think he gained a lot of respect from the populace as someone who cares a lot about the questions asked, and possibly innocent of the charges because of his strong reaction. Maybe Clinton delivered his reaction to the populace and did not care about reporters; if so he succeeded.

Know your audience—I learnt that from you, Garr!

Scott

No doubt Clinton is a gifted orator. In fact, I don't agree with him polictically but when listening to him is becomes almost convincing, even to me. So by that admission there is much to learn on presentation skills.

But with respect to the Mike Wallace interview, I don't mind emotion but his answer, while on the surface sounding logically, it was anything but. Nothing more than sophistry.

Jan Korbel

First, I am from Czech Republic so I do not know that much about your political circuits. But is it just me or is the moderator on Fox News so "objective" and "sweet" that you would gladly have slap him (twice if possible)? I though that our moderators here were bad but this one is wicked.

Andres

Clinton has great insight in what he was asked about. I think he gave the answers that were needed for the occasion and for the kind of interviewer he got. I'm form Chile and at least here you have better reporters that do know how to ask questions. In turn you have here a reporter that doesn't understand such a concept as neutrality and literally "attacks" Clinton. Why? I think here we don't want to check upon the reporters viewpoint but Clinton's. I I think that Clinton is vindicated by the way he responds. He didn't keep his cool but he didn't go mad either. I'm sure this wasn't the first time he confronted such biased reporters. Plus, if you check the first video, the reporter that announces the interview only focuses on Clinton's little temper problem and the rest of the meeting was, to them, worth nothing, because he made a little "mistake" ion showing some kind of disappointment about the questions he got.
I liked his way of presenting his answers.
Great article!!!

W David Stephenson

Wow! This was kismet that you posted this piece
when you did: I'm heading to Worcester to hear Clinton rally the troops this afternoon for a sweep in November, so I'll watch him with a critical eye! Having been Mike Dukakis' speechwriter 30 years ago, I
know how critical the speaker's own personality can be: Dukakis in private is a warm, absolutely wonderful man (absolutely no question about his personal integrity, ever!) but he always came across as still on the stump.

Heidi Miller

After reading your commentary, I took a look at the interviews, and yes, I'd agree that Clinton was passionate but measured with his responses. He didn't lose his temper at all; he gave clear, concise, impassioned responses.

And this is an interesting case from a journalists point of view of dealing with asking hostile (or challenging at least) questions. As a humble speaker, podcaster and blogger, I'm gathering info on interview techniques for us non-journalists out there who are seeking to improve our skills and our content, hopefully to be presented at next year's PME. This is a great example of a journalist asking a tough question and dealing with an intelligent but impassioned response. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

Reed Bailey

I agree Clinton is a "gifted communicator." He knows and effectively uses the techniques of public presentation. However, I noticed something long ago which makes me distrustful of his motives. I noticed his behavior. I had the television on without sound when Clinton made his (first term?) acceptance announcement. His body language made me pause. His body language made me feel he saw the USA as all his; that he owned the audience; that we were all his for the taking. Since then, from time to time (I didn't watch these YouTube clips) I watch Clinton speak (no sound). His body language continues to send me messages that do not match his words. I sense haughtiness, condescension and domineering egotism. Does any one else see or sense his body language does not match his words?

Jeff Langr

I tried to watch the Clinton interview from an objective standpoint. (disclaimer: I'm neither Democrat nor Republican, and feel both sides are wrong in most cases) What I saw was a very defensive man with a very aggressive posture (shifting in his seat and hunching toward the interviewer), pointing and jabbing. (When you point, note the direction in which your other fingers point...) I felt Clinton was menacing and intimidating, and that he intended to be so.

Indeed, Clinton is articulate and human in the interview. But being excessively defensive and acting cornered does not make for an effective presentation.

The only way I might view Clinton as an effective presenter in this case is if I happened to already sympathize with him.

Frank Roche

Very well done. I saw Mr. Clinton speak in person on a couple of occassions...one time in Philadelphia six weeks after his open heart surgery. We was very thin...and more quiet-spoken because he was still recovering. But he whipped the crowd into a frenzy...and was more rock star than the entire group of politicians there (including candidate John Kerry). It was really something, and as you say, it's because he connected with people. Amazing...when he was done, people didn't want him to go. How many speakers can say that?

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