When we observe his public speaking skills today, it is easy to forget the exceptionally adverse reaction he had received from the audience at the Democratic Convention 28 years ago. He was forced to leave the stage while introducing candidate Michael Dukakis. However, due to his ability to always acknowledge his shortcomings, Clinton focused with laser intensity on developing his public speaking skills.
Most people today, regardless of political leanings, recognize Bill Clinton as one of the best speakers of this generation.
For example, when the former President took stage at the Democratic National Convention in 2012, he received a standing ovation from the audience. Astoundingly, although he had ad libbed about 15% of his speech, he set incredibly high expectations for President Barack Obama at his own convention that night.
[The full speech can be viewed below.]
1. The Importance of Pacing and Pausing
Clinton uses effective pacing techniques to add emphasis to certain ideas.
For example, "We’re going to keep President Obama on. the. job." and "President Obama started with a much. worse. economy."
During these moments in his speech, he squeezes every word for maximum impact.
Furthermore, Clinton is great at wringing emotion out of the most common platitudes.
How does he accomplish this?
He has no fear of frequently pausing during his talks. He uses these gaps to garner the audience’s attention and build suspense.
For example, "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. Alignment between Hand Gestures and Words
Clinton’s best visual aids are his hands. His arm movements are open and wide. This helps him convey an image of accessibility and authenticity.
To influence the emotions and attention of the audience, he often extends his hands with palms facing up or out.
For example, when he says "Let me ask you something [palms up]…" or "Folks, this is serious [palms out]…"
He also overlaps his hands in front of his chest to reinforce intimate statements such as, "This is personal to me…"
As in earlier years, his index fingers still serve as tireless pointers. However, 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.
For example when he makes statements such as: "And I hope you and every American remembers…"
3. How You Say It Is As Important As What You Say
I will admit Mr. Clinton has not always been cognisant of his body language. (Let’s take the fact that he always seemed to touch his nose every time he said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman!” as an example)
However, over the past few years, he has certainly managed to improve this component of his speeches.
In my previous articles, I have articulated the Mehrabian formula of communication as 7% verbal, 38% vocal and 55% visual. If you are familiar with this principle, you will certainly appreciate how Clinton uses facial expressions and body language to put his words on display.
- He offers a small, knowing smile when saying, "and that brings me to health care…"
- He raises his chin in defiance when saying, "let’s take a look at what’s actually happened so far…"
- Clinton bites his bottom lip with frustration after stating, "and they refused to compromise…"
- He squints his eyes with determination when delivering lines such as, "democracy does not have to be a blood sport…"
4. Keeping Steady Eye Contact and Blinking Less
Mr. Clinton understands that eye contact is the key to persuasive communication and making others feel comfortable. He has mastered the art of connecting with the audience.
In addition, gaining control of subconscious behaviour, like blinking, is an important factor in Clinton’s public speaking success.
According to Professor Joseph Tecce at Boston, people tend to blink more often when under stress and experiencing anxiety. In turn, the audience picks up on these. When you blink a lot, your audience will instinctively feel that you are uncomfortable.
Remember President Obama's appalling first debate with Mitt Romney?
Obama had blinked 1,000 times more than Romney: 3,020 times while speaking during the 90-minute debate compared to just 2,018 times for Romney!
Low blink rates are positive indicators for public speaking, and here again, President Clinton excels.
Use the techniques outlined above to deliver a professional, powerful and persuasive presentation.
Am I suggesting that you duplicate Bill Clinton’s delivery?
Absolutely not! In order to become an influential speaker, you need to be true to yourself.
However, the advice I offer to my presentation-skills workshop participants is this: When you deliver a presentation, be yourself — but be the best version of yourself. Your audience expects and deserves that.
As you prepare for your next talk, review the speech delivered by Clinton at the 2012 Democratic Convention. Then, practice using pauses, pacing, gestures, facial expressions and eye contact. This will help your presentation rise to a higher level of likability and effectiveness.