If you want to learn to speak effectively, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are powerhouse role models. Here’s what you can learn from President Obama. To read about President Clinton’s speech, see our analysis here.
Logos: Make Your Best Case Succinctly
Barack Obama’s speech was as inspiring and uplifting as we have come to expect him to be. We (the authors) have sometimes felt that Obama does not like to make the case for his own record—that he could be more persuasive if he were willing to advocate. Lawyers know to make their affirmative case first before defending themselves again the best arguments of the other side; if you start with your opponent’s case, then you are emphasizing their arguments, not yours. In this speech, Obama thought like a lawyer. Notice how each point is made via short, pithy statements, making them easy to say and easy to understand. Here’s a segment:
“After the worst recession in 80 years, we fought our way back. We’ve seen deficits come down, 401(k)s recover, an auto industry set new records, unemployment reach eight-year lows, and our businesses create 15 million new jobs.
After a century of trying, we declared that healthcare in America is not a privilege for a few, it is a right for everybody. After decades of talk, we finally began to wean ourselves off foreign oil. We doubled our production of clean energy. We brought more of our troops home to their families, and we delivered justice to Osama bin Laden. Through diplomacy, we shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program. We opened up a new chapter with the people of Cuba, brought nearly 200 nations together around a climate agreement that could save this planet for our children. We put policies in place to help students with loans; protect consumers from fraud; cut veteran homelessness almost in half. And through countless acts of quiet courage, America learned that love has no limits, and marriage equality is now a reality across the land.”
Ethos, Pathos: Let Your Good Nature Shine Through
Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are very comfortable at the podium. As you listen to them, you get the sense that you are part of a real conversation—that this is a real human being, speaking directly to you. That helps them achieve emotional engagement. But as you let your personality shine, keep in mind a lesson of ethos—audiences want to see evidence of good common sense, good moral sense, and good will. Our favorite moment of Obama’s good humor:
“Let me tell you, eight years ago, you may remember Hillary and I were rivals for the Democratic nomination. We battled for a year and a half. Let me tell you, it was tough, because Hillary was tough. I was worn out. (She was doing everything I was doing, but just like Ginger Rogers, it was backwards in heels. (Applause.) And every time I thought I might have the race won, Hillary just came back stronger. (Applause.)
But after it was all over, I asked Hillary to join my team. (Applause.) And she was a little surprised. Some of my staff was surprised. (Laughter.) But ultimately she said yes–because she knew that what was at stake was bigger than either of us. (Applause.) And for four years — for four years, I had a front-row seat to her intelligence, her judgment, and her discipline. I came to realize that her unbelievable work ethic wasn’t for praise, it wasn’t for attention — that she was in this for everyone who needs a champion. (Applause.) I understood that after all these years, she has never forgotten just who she’s fighting for.”
Pathos: Give the Audience a Cause that Unites Them
We predict that this speech will be long remembered for Obama’s description of our “American experiment.” America, he explains, is Ronald Reagan’s (originally Puritan John Winthrop’s) “shining city on a hill”—a beacon of hope to people around the world. Our strength doesn’t lie in a single person, a king or a demagogue. It comes from us, the people. “We’re not a fragile people. We’re not a frightful people. Our power doesn’t come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order as long as we do things his way. We don’t look to be ruled.”
“America is already great. (Applause.) America is already strong. (Applause.) And I promise you, our strength, our greatness, does not depend on Donald Trump. (Applause.) In fact, it doesn’t depend on any one person. And that, in the end, may be the biggest difference in this election — the meaning of our democracy.
Ronald Reagan called America “a shining city on a hill.” Donald Trump calls it “a divided crime scene” that only he can fix. It doesn’t matter to him that illegal immigration and the crime rate are as low as they’ve been in decades — (applause) — because he’s not actually offering any real solutions to those issues. He’s just offering slogans, and he’s offering fear. He’s betting that if he scares enough people, he might score just enough votes to win this election.
And that’s another bet that Donald Trump will lose. (Applause.) And the reason he’ll lose it is because he’s selling the American people short. We’re not a fragile people. We’re not a frightful people. Our power doesn’t come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order as long as we do things his way. We don’t look to be ruled. (Applause.) Our power comes from those immortal declarations first put to paper right here in Philadelphia all those years ago: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that We the People, can form a more perfect union. (Applause.)
That’s who we are. That’s our birthright — the capacity to shape our own destiny. (Applause.) That’s what drove patriots to choose revolution over tyranny and our GIs to liberate a continent. It’s what gave women the courage to reach for the ballot, and marchers to cross a bridge in Selma, and workers to organize and fight for collective bargaining and better wages. (Applause.)
America has never been about what one person says he’ll do for us. It’s about what can be achieved by us, together — (applause) — through the hard and slow, and sometimes frustrating, but ultimately enduring work of self-government.
And that’s what Hillary Clinton understands. She knows that this is a big, diverse country. She has seen it. She’s traveled. She’s talked to folks. And she understands that most issues are rarely black and white. She understands that even when you’re 100 percent right, getting things done requires compromise; that democracy doesn’t work if we constantly demonize each other. (Applause.) She knows that for progress to happen, we have to listen to each other, and see ourselves in each other, and fight for our principles but also fight to find common ground, no matter how elusive that may sometimes seem. (Applause.) “
Diversity, argued Obama, is our hallmark and our strength. We are unified by shared values, but made even stronger by permitting, even celebrating, difference. “That’s why our military can look the way it does — every shade of humanity, forged into common service. That’s why anyone who threatens our values, whether fascists or communists or jihadists or homegrown demagogues, will always fail in the end.”
“You know, there’s been a lot of talk in this campaign about what America has lost — people who tell us that our way of life is being undermined by pernicious changes and dark forces beyond our control. They tell voters there’s a “real America” out there that must be restored. This isn’t an idea, by the way, that started with Donald Trump. It’s been peddled by politicians for a long time — probably from the start of our Republic.
And it’s got me thinking about the story I told you 12 years ago tonight, about my Kansas grandparents and the things they taught me when I was growing up. (Applause.) See, my grandparents, they came from the heartland. Their ancestors began settling there about 200 years ago. I don’t know if they have their birth certificates — (laughter) — but they were there. (Applause.) They were Scotch-Irish mostly — farmers, teachers, ranch hands, pharmacists, oil rig workers. Hardy, small town folks. Some were Democrats, but a lot of them — maybe even most of them — were Republicans. Party of Lincoln.
And my grandparents explained that folks in these parts, they didn’t like show-offs. They didn’t admire braggarts or bullies. They didn’t respect mean-spiritedness, or folks who were always looking for shortcuts in life. Instead, what they valued were traits like honesty and hard work, kindness, courtesy, humility, responsibility, helping each other out. That’s what they believed in. True things. Things that last. The things we try to teach our kids.
And what my grandparents understood was that these values weren’t limited to Kansas. They weren’t limited to small towns. These values could travel to Hawaii. (Applause.) They could travel even to the other side of the world, where my mother would end up working to help poor women get a better life; trying to apply those values. My grandparents knew these values weren’t reserved for one race. They could be passed down to a half-Kenyan grandson, or a half-Asian granddaughter. In fact, they were the same values Michelle’s parents, the descendants of slaves, taught their own kids, living in a bungalow on the South Side of Chicago. (Applause.) They knew these values were exactly what drew immigrants here, and they believed that the children of those immigrants were just as American as their own, whether they wore a cowboy hat or a yarmulke, a baseball cap or a hijab. (Applause.)
America has changed over the years. But these values that my grandparents taught me — they haven’t gone anywhere. They’re as strong as ever, still cherished by people of every party, every race, every faith. They live on in each of us. What makes us American, what makes us patriots is what’s in here. That’s what matters. (Applause.)
And that’s why we can take the food and music and holidays and styles of other countries, and blend it into something uniquely our own. That’s why we can attract strivers and entrepreneurs from around the globe to build new factories and create new industries here. That’s why our military can look the way it does — every shade of humanity, forged into common service. (Applause.) That’s why anyone who threatens our values, whether fascists or communists or jihadists or homegrown demagogues, will always fail in the end. (Applause.)
That is America. That is America. Those bonds of affection; that common creed. We don’t fear the future; we shape it. We embrace it, as one people, stronger together than we are on our own. That’s what Hillary Clinton understands — this fighter, this stateswoman, this mother and grandmother, this public servant, this patriot — that’s the America she’s fighting for. (Applause.)
And that is why I have confidence, as I leave this stage tonight, that the Democratic Party is in good hands. My time in this office, it hasn’t fixed everything. As much as we’ve done, there’s still so much I want to do. But for all the tough lessons I’ve had to learn, for all the places where I’ve fallen short — I’ve told Hillary, and I’ll tell you, what’s picked me back up every single time: It’s been you. The American people.”
Obama brings Hillary into this narrative, as the embodiment of Teddy Roosevelt’s “man in the arena,” that citizen who is willing to work and to fight to make things better. With that image, Obama took Hillary’s record, including any mistakes she has made, and turned it from a potential vulnerability into a legitimate strength:
“Look, Hillary has got her share of critics. She has been caricatured by the right and by some on the left. She has been accused of everything you can imagine — and some things that you cannot. (Laughter.) But she knows that’s what happens when you’re under a microscope for 40 years. She knows that sometimes during those 40 years she’s made mistakes — just like I have; just like we all do. (Applause.) That’s what happens when we try. That’s what happens when you’re the kind of citizen Teddy Roosevelt once described — not the timid souls who criticize from the sidelines, but someone “who is actually in the arena…who strives valiantly; who errs…but who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement.” (Applause.)
Hillary Clinton is that woman in the arena. (Applause.) She’s been there for us — even if we haven’t always noticed. And if you’re serious about our democracy, you can’t afford to stay home just because she might not align with you on every issue. You’ve got to get in the arena with her, because democracy isn’t a spectator sport. (Applause.) America isn’t about “yes, he will.” It’s about “yes, we can.” (Applause.) And we’re going to carry Hillary to victory this fall, because that’s what the moment demands.”
Bill Clinton and Barack Obama appeal to audiences, but sometimes in different ways. These two speeches share the following:
- Address both the audience at hand a wider audience;
- Well-organized structures;
- Short, punchy sentences;
- Clear language and message;
- Use humor;
- Delivery that projects warmth, relaxed body language, never in a rush.
- Obama has elevated cadence to an art form, using pauses to land a point, and varying his speed to great effect;
- Obama can transition powerfully and quickly from chatty to deadly serious by his piercing facial expressions, slower cadence, more somber tone, and varying volume;
- Clinton has a particular down-home, Southern charm;
- Clinton is a superb “explainer in chief”– good at simplifying and clarifying the inherently complex.
In terms of rhetoric, the Democratic National Convention has offered a rich laboratory of standout performances. Stay tuned for our analysis of Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech, coming soon.