Democratic Convention, Day 4: Hillary Clinton, Gender, and Yelling

Democratic Convention, Day 4: Hillary Clinton, Gender, and Yelling

The first three days of the Democratic National Convention were filled with stand-out speakers—Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama. They did an excellent job supporting their candidate, but they also raised the bar for Hillary Clinton.  It’s tough to be the person who has to follow some of the strongest orators of this generation.  When compared to Trump, though, Clinton carried the day.

In terms of logos (persuasion through logic), Clinton held her own when measured against her famous supporters and certainly bested Trump.  Her speech was chockablock with details, concrete plans, evidence that she has mastered her material.  This was a noticeable contrast with Donald Trump’s acceptance speech, as Clinton pointed out:

“Now, you didn’t hear any of this from Donald Trump at his convention.  He spoke for 70-odd minutes — and I do mean odd.  And he offered zero solutions. But we already know he doesn’t believe these things. No wonder he doesn’t like talking about his plans.  You might have notice—I love talking about mine.”

Clinton’s logic was also made more clear by her use of short, pithy statements.  It is easier to deliver a short sentence, and easier for listeners to understand.  And a succinct zinger will stick with an audience long after the speech is over.  One of her best lines: “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”

Clinton also continued the use of persuasion through the positive, uplifting imagery we saw in speeches by Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.  This stands in direct contrast to Trump’s dark acceptance speech. We have argued here that the use of positive emotion is better rhetoric in the long run.  In this category, we would also declare Clinton’s speech superior to Trump’s.

We’ve written here about Clinton’s ethos challenges.  Aristotle said that a speaker is more persuasive if she appears trustworthy and credible, exhibiting “good sense, good moral character, and good will.”

One of the ways that a speaker can exhibit ethos is to keep her cool under pressure.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s measured pace and wry good humor in his first Fireside Chat, which you can hear here, serves as an excellent model. To see the opposite effect, watch Howard Dean’s now infamous speech in Iowa from the 2004 presidential race—in an effort to energize supporters, he appeared to lose control, and ultimately lost the Democratic nomination:

Howard Dean’s speech scream illustrated the difficulty of speaking to two audiences—those present at a rally or in a convention hall, who might be cheering or jeering, and the listeners at home, watching online or on television.  It is perfectly natural to feel that you must yell to be heard over a rambunctious crowd, but it’s going to play differently to listeners at home. The challenge for a political candidate is to keep that larger audience in mind.  Our advice:  keep yelling to a minimum.

We are aware that Hillary Clinton has been criticized in the past for yelling.  This criticism often illustrates an unfair double-standard.  Labelling Clinton as a yeller in a campaign in which her opponents are Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders is particularly preposterous.  Both men yell much more than she, but this has not proven a political liability for them.  In contrast, Clinton’s verbal aggressiveness triggers accusations of stridency suggestive of misogyny, such as Tucker Carlson’s assessment that “there’s just something about her that feels castrating, overbearing and scary.”  Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post wrote in January 2008 that Clinton “needs a radio-controlled shock collar so that aides can zap her when she starts to get screechy.”

This misogyny might make anyone want to yell.

Still, we would be remiss as rhetoric professors if we didn’t point out that listeners dislike being yelled at.  Yelling can be effective if is it used strategically and surgically, but ethos requires a steady hand.  And in this campaign, when a central criticism of Trump is that he is too easily triggered, Clinton would be smart to aim for a cool, composed demeanor to contrast with his bombast.

You can watch Clinton’s entire speech here:

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