Bill Clinton is a masterful public speaker, so all expected him to do well. He delivered. You can watch the speech here:
There are so many lessons of effective advocacy that this speech offers, but we will focus on a few.
The Importance of Primacy
When you write a speech, you must pay careful attention to your first paragraph. This is the “moment of primacy,” which means the moment when you are making that all-important first impression. Audiences will make snap judgments about you in those first few minutes based on your body language, your tone, and your persona. They are also likely to remember what you say in that first paragraph (just as you can count on them tuning out periodically as the speech continues, because it is difficult to pay attention forever).
Bill Clinton started with a bang. His opening salvo (which you really must watch to get the proper effect):
Now, Mr. Mayor, fellow Democrats, we are here to nominate a president… and I’ve got one in mind.
He then went on to offer an articulate description of Obama, describing him as “a man who’s cool on the outside but who burns for America on the inside.” That’s a perfect moment of primacy. Right away, Bill Clinton had the audience ecstatic with laughter and applause. He delivers his opening line with perfect comic timing. As we noted in our analysis of Michelle Obama’s speech, the Democrats have wanted to cheer for quite some time now. You could feel the spark that Clinton lit in the room from the very first moments of this speech.
Bill Clinton has always been able to engage an audience, and this speech was no exception. He has a down-home appeal, sometimes conversational, sometimes borrowing the cadences of a preacher to make his point. His eye contact is excellent, his face warm, and his body language relaxed.
A former student sent us this interesting link. It shows the script of the speech as written, and compares it to the speech that Clinton actually gave. You can see that 40% of the speech was ad-libbed. He had prepared notes (which you can see on the lectern in the video), but used them as a jumping-off place. That’s a great technique to help you sound more genuine.
It’s also instructive to see how he sets up big points or punch lines—he uses pauses. A pause makes the thing that follows pop.
Making the Case
Clinton was trained as a lawyer, and his understanding of how to make a closing argument serves him well in this speech.
He offers a pithy theme:
In Tampa, the Republican argument against the president’s re- election was actually pretty simple, pretty snappy. It went something like this: “We left him a total mess. He hasn’t cleaned it up fast enough, so fire him and put us back in.”
He then went on offer fact after fact to build a case in favor of his candidate:
I like the argument for President Obama’s re-election a lot better. Here it is. He inherited a deeply damaged economy. He put a floor under the crash. He began the long, hard road to recovery and laid the foundation for a modern, more well-balanced economy that will produce millions of good, new jobs, vibrant new businesses, and lots of new wealth for innovators. Now, are we where we want to be today? No. Is the president satisfied? Of course not. But are we better off than we were when he took office?
Listen to this. Listen to this.
Everybody, when President Barack Obama took office, the economy was in freefall. It had just shrunk 9 full percent of GDP. We were losing 750,000 jobs a month. Are we doing better than that today?
. . . In 2010, as the president’s recovery program kicked in, the job losses stopped and things began to turn around. The Recovery Act saved or created millions of jobs and cut taxes — let me say this again — cut taxes for 95 percent of the American people.
And in the last 29 months, our economy has produced about 4.5 million private-sector jobs.
We could have done better, but last year the Republicans blocked the president’s job plan, costing the economy more than a million new jobs. So here’s another job score. President Obama: plus 4.5 million. Congressional Republicans: zero.
During this period — during this period, more than 500,000 manufacturing jobs have been created under President Obama. That’s the first time manufacturing jobs have increased since the 1990s.
And I’ll tell you something else. The auto industry restructuring worked. It saved…
It saved more than a million jobs, and not just at G.M., Chrysler, and their dealerships, but in auto parts manufacturing all over the country. That’s why even the automakers who weren’t part of the deal supported it. They needed to save those parts suppliers, too. Like I said, we’re all in this together.
So what’s happened? There are now 250,000 more people working in the auto industry than on the day the companies were restructured.
So — now, we all know that Governor Romney opposed the plan to save G.M. and Chrysler. So here’s another job score. Are you listening in Michigan and Ohio and across the country?
Here — here’s another job score. Obama: 250,000. Romney: zero.
It is an effective lawyering technique to stack up fact after fact to lead to your conclusion. It is even more if you can do it in a way that paints a picture for your audience, as Clinton does here. And it is most effective of all—required, in fact—if you do it with facts that are true. Clinton’s speech was chock-a-block with facts, and much of the media coverage that has followed has marveled that they all check out. As Bloomberg News reported succinctly, “No False Claims in Clinton’s Speech.”
We do pause here, though, to make a point about distinguishing correlation from causation. One of Clinton’s memorable statements was as follows:
Since 1961, for 52 years now, the Republicans have held the White House 28 years, the Democrats 24. In those 52 years, our private economy has produced 66 million private- sector jobs. So what’s the job score? Republicans: twenty-four million. Democrats: forty-two.
As fact-checkers have pointed out, while these numbers are true, it’s not clear that the person in the White House could claim full credit for those job numbers. They might have resulted from other factors as well, such as whether the same party controlled Congress. That’s the sort of logical leap that you want to be alert for when you assess an argument. (Even so, the numbers themselves are attention-grabbing and the point was vividly made.)
We offer one final comment—the speech ran quite long, presumably because of Clinton’s pleasure in ad-libbing. Audiences don’t like to have to pay attention for long periods of time. Shorter is better.
At the end of the day, though, the speech was a triumph.