Friday, November 11, 2016

Famous Speech Friday: Hillary Clinton's 2016 concession speech

You don't have to like the topic of a speech to give it well. In fact, delivering news that neither the speaker nor the audience wants to hear might be considered one of the ultimate speaking challenges, obliterating as it does any of the energy that can flow when both speaker and audience are having a great time and enjoying what's being said.

Concession speeches fall right into that category, every time--and there are thousands of them given all over in U.S. election cycles. But rarely are they at once momentous and well-done, as this one was. It also happens that you need not like the topic of a speech to consider it outstanding. After all, in this space, we only require that the speech be famous and by a woman. But this was one outstanding speech, in every respect.

This wasn't Hillary Clinton's first concession speech, but it was the first given by a woman as a major-party candidate for President in the United States, making history for her as well as for the nation.

The widespread media coverage was what we might expect for a woman candidate: Some news media insisted on describing it and her as emotional, something rarely said about male speakers even when they are emotional. Some said she was choking back tears (see if you can find said choking back--I couldn't). As The Atlantic noted in writing about the press and pundits, "They wanted to see tears. She didn’t provide them, but that didn’t make much difference." Some said she apologized, when her "I'm sorry we did not win this election" was a simple expression of personal regret, not directed at anyone as an apology. It was said to be her last as a politician, something she did not address at all. Repeating her opponent's talking points about her, some described the speech as her "most genuine," implying she hadn't been so during the campaign. Really, anything to take the power out of this speech was said about it. As Mary Beard has said, "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..."

But others described the speech as I would: Powerful. Gracious. Calm. Pulled together. On point.

That's in part because Clinton has a dedicated meditation practice, one she has cultivated since being First Lady; meditation can help any speaker approach even the most difficult speech with a well of calm. But it's also because the speech and the candidate faced the primary task of conceding the election in forthright, plain language that left no doubt about her intention:
Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead. Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power. 
We don't just respect that. We cherish it. It also enshrines the rule of law; the principle we are all equal in rights and dignity; freedom of worship and expression. We respect and cherish these values, too, and we must defend them.
That second paragraph was a sly note to say that the peaceful transfer of power--something her opponent threatened to disrupt if the election didn't go his way--wasn't the only constitutional right held dear by Americans. Civil rights and the rule of law also matter, she noted. This might sound innocuous to some listeners, or as drawing a line in sand to others.

In thanking her volunteers, Clinton also took a moment to acknowledge a gigantic secret Facebook group called Pantsuit Nation, noted for growing to more than 3 million followers at this writing. She did that by emphasizing that she wanted their voices at work in public:
And to the millions of volunteers, community leaders, activists and union organizers who knocked on doors, talked to their neighbors, posted on Facebook — even in secret private Facebook sites. 
I want everybody coming out from behind that and make sure your voices are heard going forward. 
And in keeping with her lifelong focus on improving the lives of girls as well as women, she added a shout-out to her youngest, non-voting followers--one for which many parents were grateful in explaining the election results that morning:
And to all of the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams. 
There's also what she left out: She didn't, pundits aside, declare this to be her last speech as a politician, and she didn't say what was then apparent, that she had won the mandate of the people in the popular vote, no small achievement. In fact, as the first time that can be said for a woman candidate, it is an achievement as important as her campaign was in the first place.

The speech's audience worldwide was enormous, both for the livestream and the videos archived online. This isn't the Clinton speech I'd hoped to add to The Eloquent Woman Index of Famous Speeches by Women, and yet it's a worthy speech to include in that collection, already home to six of her speeches. Study it as an example of grace under pressure and in the face of great disappointment. We never like to anticipate such speeches, but they happen in both politics and everyday life more often than we like to admit. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • You can't sound perfectly pulled together in a disappointing moment without some advance prep: Coverage on election day noted that Clinton spent her time working on two speeches, and this was one of them. Speakers take note: You have almost no hope of sounding pulled together, powerful, calm, gracious, and on point if your concession speech is thrown together in the heat of the moment. And for anyone working for elected office, work in advance on a concession speech is a humbling moment, a good place to be no matter the outcome.
  • Every speech has a job to do, and the speaker's job is to be clear about it: There's nothing to be gained in a concession speech that leaves out the actual concession, or leaves it till the end, so Clinton here made clear early on that she was conceding, and underscored that by urging her listeners to accept it and move on to the work of the nation. Without that, this speech would have failed its most basic assignment. And if you think that's too obvious a point to make, there are many speeches that hem and haw before getting to this very basic point.
  • Show your followers a path forward: At the time of their greatest disappointment, supporters need their leader not just to comfort them, but to use a speech's call to action to move the group forward, or at least show it a path to follow. Toward the end of this speech, Clinton did just that: "You know, scripture tells us, let us not grow weary of doing good, for in good season we shall reap. My friends, let us have faith in each other, let us not grow weary and lose heart, for there are more seasons to come and there is more work to do."
You can see full video of the speech below, and a transcript is here.

 

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