Seven Speechmaking Lessons From A Living Master – Watching President Clinton’s UCD Address

I am a proud graduate of UCD, so it was really thrilling when I heard that President Bill Clinton was delivering a keynote address on the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Not only is Clinton a highly significant, intelligent and thoughtful leader, but he is one of the most memorable and impactful orators of modern times. Combining warmth, self-deprecation and personal attention with a muscular sense of story, meaning and ambition, Clinton’s speaking has long been a key driver in his own campaigns, as well as those of Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton and many Democratic Party candidates, not to mention the impact of his own charitable endeavours.

In watching the video of his speech that UCD graciously posted on their website, as a presentation coach I was delighted to see President Clinton performing his speech showing so many examples of technique that made the speech engrossing, clear and dynamic.

Watch the video yourself below, and look out for some of the following 7 aspects of what made this speech so effective:

Note how President Clinton has a printed speech (with final edits in pen!) in his hands, that he is going to read carefully, using his glasses which he generally prefers not to do, in order to make sure on this important occasion that he gets it right, gives credit where it is due and ensures his points are clear. But note how he doesn’t get trapped in his speech, eyes down in the paper, or become stiff and robotic just because he has a prepared speech and is standing behind a platform. He isn’t tied to it, he stays organic and engaged in his thoughts and his audience, and uses it as a tool when he is ready to move on to the next key point. Just because you have a fully scripted speech doesn’t mean you have to be stiff reciting it, and you don’t necessarily have to be bounding around the stage with no notes in order to be alive and engaging.

Observe how he uses stories elegantly to provide human examples of how the bigger forces and numbers have emotional meaning, and to bring personalisation to the circumstances. Note too how he uses the names of real people, not only the famous ones like Bono and Bertie Ahern, and specifics like times and locations to make each story specific and visible. And of course, his stories are full of awe at people’s courage, kindness and determination, and lots of self-deprecating humour.

See how he uses lots of easy eye contact to engage his audience. But it’s gentle, like a grandfather taking in everyone at his birthday dinner. He’s not zapping around the room, he takes his time. He’s at ease. It’s highly effective at keeping us engaged.

Listen to how he uses contrasting tones of voice to give fresh and clarifying quality to different sections, such as his warm recollection of friendly and fun late nights, versus his grave remembrance of premature death as an expectation in the violent days of the Northern Irish troubles.

Pay attention to his masterful use of pauses. The same afternoon I watched this, I saw a marvellous young scientist winning a contest to present about science in 180 seconds, which she did colourfully and clearly. But the one aspect I would’ve coached her on was pausing – she barely seemed to draw breath – I’m sure partly driven by ensuring she didn’t go over her 3-minute limit. But a few well-chosen pauses would have let her most important points land. But with no pauses, they speed by us like subway trains, and it all becomes a bit of a blur, no matter how intriguing the content. President Clinton shows his mastery of speaking, his background in the sermons of the church and the playing of jazz, in knowing that pausing, and letting an idea, or a question, or an image, hang in the air, gives it a chance to land in our minds, to find a place on the couch of our brain and get comfortable and stay a while, and thereby resonate. It can be hard up on the stage to take those beats of silence, but as well-planned as any great line, they can be crucial to letting an idea breathe, take hold and be accepted.

Note his use of analogy to get across a big idea – that the great problem for the 21st century is how to handle identity, the conflicts from differences in it and threats to it, in an increasingly global, diverse world, without losing what makes us unique. His use of UCD as an analogy, how it is international but still utterly Irish, makes the big central idea of aspects of identity both clear and impressively audience-specific, and the concept memorably stays with us. And sometimes analogies that surprise us, that seem to come from left-field but pay off in explanation, can be very effective. Note how Clinton uses the very fun and colourful comparison of the movie Black Panther with the Good Friday Agreement, explaining how the film shows different tribes, all proud of their identities, but who find a way to work together.

And finally, maybe more than anything else, note how it is clear that this topic, this memory, this event, is so meaningful to President Clinton. It’s not something he is distant from or cold about. He is talking about it because he cares about it, is proud of it, has passion for it in his heart. It’s funny – writing the first line of this paragraph, I accidentally wrote “his” instead of “this” for topic, memory, event – but that Freudian slip is actually right. In the end, this is not some far-away notion – these are his words, and he is personally connected to them. When he concludes with the powerful notion that “20 years ago, some brave people cleared a space for the miraculous. You should fill it,” you see how much this endeavour has meant to him. Too many times I see presentations where the speaker’s heart isn’t in it. Be more like Clinton – don’t be afraid to share what really matters to you, and make an impact.


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