Friday, August 5, 2016

Famous Speech Friday: Hillary Clinton accepts nomination for president

When I was growing up, child star Johnny Whitaker had a brief earworm-y hit with a 1968 song whose title says it all: "Every little boy can be president." (You can hear it here at the 27-minute mark if you don't believe me.) The song isn't remarkable except for the breathtaking concept in the title. I was 10, that last age (until you hit what feminists call the f***-you fifties) when girls feel pretty darned invincible and unpummeled by society. But that song showed me a limit.

After that, the coded and not-so-coded messages boil down to what Alice learned in the Red Queen's race: " takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place." You start out saying, as so many young women do, "Oh, that doesn't affect me." But it does. Over time, you learn that to get over, around, or through all the misogyny and missed opportunities takes persistence, grit, and working harder. At the end of all that, you're often called unlikable, because research shows that we see women leaders as being either competent or likable, but not both. That disparity comes into play particularly when women leaders try to talk about their accomplishments, as Hillary Clinton did in accepting the Democratic party nomination for president.

Putting it another way, this tweet said it best:
Much is familiar for women in Clinton's race for the presidency. It's her second try, for starters. Every time she speaks, critics, mostly male and Republican, line up to say what a lousy orator she is, despite her well-developed speaking skills; even President Obama wincingly says she's no orator, though we have plenty of examples on this blog and in real life to the contrary. She is said to be "shouting," "cackling," and "shrill," with a voice that is unattractive, and she really needs to smile more. Her outfits, her hairstyles, and her flat shoes are dissected and mocked in ways that mute her messages. Suggestions that women are shrill or shouting when they speak go back centuries, a public effort to get women to shut up that is so ingrained, it's almost reflexive.  You may find interesting this psychoanalyst's explanation for why she is so vilified, as well as the reminder that, until she decided to run for President, Americans again and again rated her the most admired woman in the world. She has crossed a line, in more ways than one.

But she keeps showing up, anyway, as she did for this most public of job interviews. This time, she took a non-anxious, non-defensive approach to answering the fair and unfair criticisms leveled at her, with a speech that kept overturning them. Consider this passage in which she was answering Donald Trump's claim that, when it comes to America's woes, "I alone can fix it." Clinton, referring to a book of hers that was mocked, said:
Twenty years ago I wrote a book called "It Takes a Village." A lot of people looked at the title and asked, what the heck do you mean by that? This is what I mean. None of us can raise a family, build a business, heal a community or lift a country totally alone. America needs every one of us to lend our energy, our talents, our ambition to making our nation better and stronger. I believe that with all my heart. That's why "Stronger Together" is not just a lesson from our history. It's not just a slogan for our campaign. It's a guiding principle for the country we've always been and the future we're going to build.
And in answer to the complaints that she is old news, part of the establishment, and at once too familiar and too mysterious (such a hard combo to pull off):
Now, sometimes the people at this podium are new to the national stage. As you know, I'm not one of those people....But my job titles only tell you what I've done. They don't tell you why. The truth is, through all these years of public service, the "service" part has always come easier to me than the "public" part. I get it that some people just don't know what to make of me. So let me tell you.
Using this speech as a "let me speak for myself" moment created a connection and an emotional resonance with her listeners, particularly women and anyone who's even a little bit introverted or uncomfortable talking about themselves. She signaled this right at the start, saying of her famously extroverted husband and their decades-long conversation, "I've even gotten a few words in along the way." In this, I think Clinton--whom I see as far more introverted than we realize--found the quiet emotional core of her speech.  Revealing herself on this very public stage was a major effort, but she made it feel intimate and a little wry, all at the same time. In effect, she modeled how to do this very difficult thing, in the most difficult of settings.

At the same time, Clinton certainly didn't pull any punches in countering her opponent. A core of the speech contrasted Trump's statements with her policy platform, and whether she was sharing details about herself or her policies, this speech had the right level of needed detail, a stark contrast to her opponent's speech.

"Needed detail" was the key here. Convention speeches by candidates can often be like Christmas trees, loaded down with a million different items. And while this one had several jobs to tackle, it flowed well from section to section. Study that transcript for transitions, smoothly done. The pace was measured, and she came in under one hour, compared to Trump's record-breaking one hour and 15 minutes, the longest acceptance speech in 40 years. So much for women talking more than men.

I served in Bill Clinton's administration and have seen many speeches by Hillary Clinton. But midway through this one, I looked up at the television and saw a president speaking to me. A kind of president I hadn't seen before. That kind of aha moment happened to many women watching, women of all political persuasions, and if it moved women in particular, therein may lie a key to the election for Clinton. If women do not vote for Trump, the electoral college map of the United States turns all blue, giving her a decided win. Coming out of the convention, this speech contributed to a bounce in Clinton's results in the polls, where some have her at a double-digit lead over Trump nationally as well as in key battleground states.

The English classics scholar Mary Beard, in her brilliant talk on the public voice of women, considered whether it matters that women's public speaking is called shrill and shouting and other derisive names:
Do those words matter? Of course they do, because they underpin an idiom that acts to remove the authority, the force, even the humour from what women have to say. It’s an idiom that effectively repositions women back into the domestic sphere (people ‘whinge’ over things like the washing up); it trivialises their words, or it ‘re-privatises’ them. Contrast the ‘deep-voiced’ man with all the connotations of profundity that the simple word ‘deep’ brings. It is still the case that when listeners hear a female voice, they don’t hear a voice that connotes authority; or rather they have not learned how to hear authority in it...
Beard was not speaking of Clinton per se, but this speech sought to put back the authority, the force, and the humor that are Clinton's strongest qualities. Perhaps it will be a step toward teaching us how to hear authority in women's voices. Linguistics professor Robin Lakoff says, "We ought not to be instructing women to be better speakers. We should rather be teaching ourselves to be better listeners." What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Tell the part of the story we don't recall: "You know this story, but you don't know this part of it," or words to that effect, is like catnip for those who remember the past and those who never knew its details. This is how you create emotional resonance with an audience. Too many speakers don't want to go over the past, feeling that their listeners *should* know about them. In demonstrating that she makes no such assumption, Clinton demonstrated an appropriate humility for a candidate for the nation's highest office--and took the opportunity to explain herself instead of letting the critics do it for her.
  • Have fun with it: This is the highest of high-stakes speeches, with an estimated 33 million people watching and 50,000 in the hall. I was delighted to see Clinton appear to enjoy every last minute of it, something you can't do if you're angry, nervous, or otherwise not in the present moment. She also let her humor show, something that close colleagues see but the public sometimes misses. Yes, it's an important speech, but that's no reason you can't relax and enjoy, and your delivery will benefit from the subtle psychological distance from your detractors that a mentally playful approach affords you.
  • Obliterate the fashion commentary so we can hear you: The white suit Clinton wore was brilliant in more ways than one. A masterstroke, really, and one which left no room for dishing about color or interesting details. This blank slate did not distract from her message. Many women wear black for just this reason, but black generally makes you disappear on stage. This warm-toned white better suits her coloring and stood out on the stage. Searching for meaning, many commentators remarked that the suffragettes wore white, and that this might be a nod to the women's movements of yore. And that's about all that any woman wants to hear about her outfit when she's running for president.
You can find a transcript of the speech here, and the video is below.
(Photo from Hillary Clinton on Instagram)

Join me in Edinburgh, Scotland, on October 20 for a new workshop, Add Meaning with Metaphor: Improve your Speeches with the Most Powerful Figure of Speech. It's a pre-conference workshop at the Edinburgh Speechwriters and Business Communicators Conference, designed to help both speakers and speechwriters use this powerful tool. You can register here for just the workshop, the conference, or both. The early registration discount has been extended to August 15.