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Bill Clinton’s Conversational Style: “Now, Listen to This!”

Conversational Style at the 2012 Convention

Whatever your political views, the 2012 Democratic National Convention was a feast for students of great public speaking. Michelle Obama’s speech proved that fiery is feminine, and that women can exude power and poise, even while playing a traditional role.

Then there was Bill Clinton. He’s probably the only American speaker who could have equaled Michelle Obama’s command, and everyone was waiting to see if Bill would (pardon the game lingo) hit it out of the park.

He did.

A Conversational Style of Public Speaking Isn’t Always “Good” English

I’m always telling my clients that the rules for writing English that you learned in school will serve you badly as a public speaker.

One such rule is to not repeat yourself.

This makes sense when you’re writing for the page, because people can always go back and re-read your point if they missed it the first time.

When you’re speaking, however, if people miss a point, they are permanently lost—unless you repeat it. Preferably more than once.

Another rule is to begin your sentences with hard content, not with “null” words like So, Now, Well, or OK; and certainly never with conjunctions such as But or And.

This rule is wrong for public speaking.

Bill Clinton Breaks the Writing Rules, for a Reason

Bill Clinton broke this rule with a vengeance. In this transcript of what Clinton said (versus what he wrote in advance), he begins almost half of his paragraphs with “Now.” (Others begin with “But,” “And,” “So,” and his penultimate “Look.”)

“Now” obviously carries no content, but it does serve some critically important functions:

  • It notifies your audience that an important point is coming, and that “now” is the time to tune in. 
  • It gives you (the speaker) a natural way to pause and be sure your audience is paying attention before you unveil your thought, and
  • It creates a welcome break in the rhythm of idea-idea-idea-idea that makes listening to a speaker such hard work.

Last, and most importantly, the use of null words at the start of an idea reminds both you and your audience that you’re having a conversation. This conversational language is the farthest you can get from being a “talking head”—as Clinton’s speech demonstrates.

Bill Clinton Tells Us To Listen, and That’s Good

It’s no surprise that Clinton made such excellent use of “Now” to begin each new idea—or that The Atlantic Wire’s transcriber knew (just from hearing that “now”) to start a new paragraph!

But Clinton did one more thing, to great effect, that your high school English teacher might not approve of. (Of which your high school teacher might not have approved? I don’t think so!)

He told us to listen.

Specifically, toward the end of his speech, he began a paragraph with the words:

Now, finally, listen to this. For the last two years — after going up at three times the rate of inflation for a decade, for the last two years, health care costs have been under 4 percent, in both years for the first time in 50 years.

So let me ask you something. Are we better off because President Obama fought for health care reform? You bet we are.

Clinton’s point here is complex (costs rising at three times inflation for 10 years versus under 4% for two years—for the first time in 50 years), which is why he gives us the extra warning to listen to this.

But that’s not the only warning we get. He also, at other times, says:

  • Now folks, this is serious.
  • Now—wait a minute—let’s look at…
  • Now people ask me all the time…
  • Really. Think about this:
  • Now, what does this mean? What does this mean?
  • Now, I don’t know about you, but…
  • So what’s happened?
  • So let’s get back to the story
  • I’m fixing to tell you why.
  • Now, we all know that…
  • Now, are you all ready for that?

The Big Takeaway is Conversational Style

Notice that the list above is not exhaustive—and we haven’t even touched on Clinton’s masterful use of pauses to control the energy of an audience that could happily have cheered for him for hours.

So finally, what’s the take-away?

Well, think about this!

Now, are you ready?

OK.

Begin your ideas conversationally. This won’t detract from their seriousness. On the contrary, it may help your audience tune their ears, listen more closely, and take what you’re saying more seriously, not less.

Just ask Bill Clinton! (And P.S., if you think he “just opened his mouth” and gave the speech below, check out what Clinton told Jon Stewart about his weeks and weeks of preparation.)

Jezra:

View Comments (1)

  • Now, y'all ;) listen to this:
    reading about Clinton's conversational was fascinating and useful!!!!!!

    Thanks so much for another awesome post, Jezra!

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