BY Russell Wardrop

DATE: 06 SEP 2012


Jeez, Bill Clinton knows how to work a room. He loves the love as much as he used to love to love. And the Democratic Party loves to dance, it’s got to dance, when Bill is giving it plenty. I’ve not yet viewed much of his keynote to the Democratic Party conference, just seen the twitter feeds, but Bill Clinton has empathy by the bucket-load. It even works over the web. Empathy is understanding, interest, engagement, listening and rapport. Empathy is also charm and charisma.   

For Clinton big audience oratory has become a meme. It’s hard wired into him and as natural as an afternoon stroll. You might think it's always been second nature, but early in his career he was prone to speaking for too long and for missing his target by miles, most famously at the Democratic Conference in 1988. The easy confidence he now displays comes from knowing- like Usain Bolt on the blocks at 2012- that he now has all he needs and he knows how to use it.

As I type Matt Frei on Channel 4 News is saying that Clinton slays his opponents “with a rapier-like wit”. True. Name me an outstanding orator who has no humour and I will buy you a pint. Blair, Hague, Salmond and Obama can all make us laugh. Bush (Dubya), Brown and Osborne struggle. Churchill was terrific at it and revelled in humour of all sorts. It is said he deliberately pronounced “Nazis” as “Nazzzzzzeeezz” to make them seem ineffectual and ridiculous. And who knows how important it was to make Congress laugh while he was over The Pond persuading the USA to join the allies.

For all their importance, great speakers look at themselves with humility and humanity (Ryan seems better able to do this than Romney). A review of what Clinton said at the podium and what was delivered to the press beforehand shows that some of the humour was extemporaneous: now that is a real skill. A great piece by Dashiell Bennett in The Atlantic Wire shows where he did it, and how he did it. In his diaries, Alasdair Campbell says that the ten per cent that Blair extemporaneously put in while on his feet often made a good draft great oratory. Clinton has that ability. Interestingly, Obama has delivered terrific stand-up quality comedy at the Washington Press Association Dinner, but it’s all scripted: Well-timed, but tightly scripted. Clinton is the elder statesman in more than age.

The Americans must be nearing their limit on storytelling, but it remains key; and the hinterland story is essential. Obama could tip them over the edge tonight and they may be wise to have a bucket next to the sofa. Last week it was Ryan and the Romneys (what a great name for a country and western band that is) with long dead dads, five young strapping lads and the George Romney daily rose tear-jerker. This was followed by Mrs Obama giving us Barack as ordinary man, Barack as formerly poor man and, of course, Barack as Superman. These sometimes mawkish stories- in the UK we are a bit more sceptical about them but can still swallow our share- are necessary because they hit the emotional buttons. All the above did that for sure at least to the faithful in the arena.

Bill Clinton uses his stories as simple tear-jerking metaphors, just like those above, but he does much more with them: he uses them as analogies to explain real policy issues, and complex concepts. Far from sitting on the surface, they have depth and meaning and resonance.

In the end, to paraphrase the recently dead Frank Carson, it’s the way you tell them. Bill Clinton appears to chat with you up there because, despite all the preparation and research and rehearsal, that is essentially what he does. “Now, I want to you listen to me here…” “Now look, no president… I’m telling yah… No president in history… Not one… ”

Charm, charisma and empathy are in some sense ethereal and indefinable. It can be easier to pinpoint their absence than to explain their presence. But essentially it is about taking the others’ viewpoint into consideration before giving them yours. Delivering a speech, that means in some sense being “unscripted” and definitely being “in the moment” (which is essentially what the latin “extempore” means). When you do sock it to them you already get their mood and deliver in the context of what they are feeling and how they are seeing things, right at that moment in time. You take them to a place they want to go to. When it goes well it’s euphoric for everyone and the room has an energy of its own.

Watch Bill Clinton, that’s exactly what he is doing on stage. Having a dialogue with the audience, from beginning to end, taking them to Euphoria.


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Russell Wardrop is our Chief Executive. If you would like to know more about this subject, drop him an email and we will be in touch.

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