10 rhetorical strategies that made Bill Clinton’s DNC speech effective

Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention has gotten a lot of attention — and understandably so.

While Factcheck.org called it “a fact-checker’s nightmare” and others criticized it for being too long, there’s something about Clinton’s speech that made it stand out: good writing.

There are several factors that made the writing in the speech so strong. Here are a few of them.

Contrast

Clinton strengthened many of his points by setting up contrasts — about President Barack Obama and about the differences between the Republican and Democratic parties.

  • “I want to nominate a man who’s cool on the outside – but who burns for America on the inside.”
  • “If you want a winner-take- all, you’re-on-your-own society, you should support the Republican ticket. But if you want a country of shared opportunities and shared responsibility, a we’re-all-in-this-together society, you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden.”

Repetition

Clinton repeated a few different refrains, words and phrases throughout his speech. The repetition made these parts of his speech more memorable.

  • “I want to nominate a man who’s cool on the outside.”
  • “I want a man who believes with no doubt that we can build a new American Dream economy…”
  • “I want a man who had the good sense to marry Michelle Obama.”
  • “I want Barack Obama to be the next president of the United States.”
  • “One of the main reasons we ought to re-elect President Obama is that he is still committed to constructive cooperation. Look at his record. Look at his record.”
  • “And if you will renew the president’s contract, you will feel it. You will feel it.”

Inclusive language

Clinton often used the pronouns “we,” “us” and “y’all,” and the phrase “my fellow Americans.” The language made his message inclusive and emphasized partnership over partisanship.

  • “We Democrats — we think the country works better with a strong middle class…”
  • In Tampa — in Tampa — did y’all watch their convention?”
  • “My fellow Americans, all of us in this grand hall and everybody watching at home, when we vote in this election, we’ll be deciding what kind of country we want to live in.”
  • “You see, we believe that ‘we’re all in this together’ is a far better philosophy than ‘you’re on your own.’”
  • “My fellow Americans, if that is what you want, if that is what you believe, you must vote and you must re-elect President Barack Obama.”

The “rule of three”

Writers often rely on the rule of three to add rhythm to their writing and emphasize points they want to make. Clinton relied on it several times throughout his speech.

  • “We think the country works better with a strong middle class, with real opportunities for poor folks to work their way into it with a relentless focus on the future, with business and government actually working together to promote growth and broadly share prosperity.”
  • “Now, are we where we want to be today? No. Is the president satisfied? Of course not. But are we better off than we were when he took office? … The answer is yes.”
  • “The arithmetic tells us, no matter what they say, one of three things is about to happen.” (He then goes on to explain these three things, starting off each point with the words, “one,” “two,” “three.”)

The power of one

Words hold weight when they stand alone. Two words in particular stuck out during Clinton’s speech — “zero” and “arithmetic.” They were powerful all on their own because Clinton paused before saying them, enunciated them and repeated them.

  • “So here’s another job score. President Obama: plus 4 1/2 million. Congressional Republicans: zero.”
  • “Here – here’s another job score: Obama, 250,000; Romney … zero.”
  • “What new ideas did we bring to Washington? I always give a one-word answer: Arithmetic.”
  • “It was a highly inconvenient thing for them in our debates that I was just a country boy from Arkansas, and I came from a place where people still thought two and two was four. It’s arithmetic.”

Humor

It’s not easy to incorporate humor into writing, especially when talking about heavy subjects. But Clinton managed to get a few laughs. The jokes emphasized his points, and balanced the seriousness of his speech.

  • “Now, when Congressman Ryan looked into that TV camera and attacked President Obama’s Medicare savings as, quote, ‘the biggest, coldest power play,’ I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
  • “You got to give one thing: It takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did.”

Instructional language

Clinton often instructed viewers to listen to what he was saying. Instructional language is especially effective on TV when people might be distracted and in longer speeches because it helps redirect our attention if it’s been diverted. (Clinton’s speech, by the way, was nearly 6,000 words long.)

  • “Now you’re having a good time, but this is getting serious, and I want you to listen.”
  • “Listen to me, now. No president — no president, not me, not any of my predecessors, no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years.”
  • “So here’s another job score. Are you listening in Michigan and Ohio and across the country?”
  • “And listen to this. Listen to this. … Now, finally, listen to this.”

Explanatory language

Like good explanatory journalism, Clinton’s speech made complicated subject matters easy to understand. He was conversational when talking about issues such as health care reform, and used the phrases “here’s what it does” and “here’s what really happened.”

  • “Now, look. Here’s the challenge he faces and the challenge all of you who support him face.”
  • “So the president’s student loan reform is more important than ever. Here’s what it does – here’s what it does.”
  • “Let’s take a look at what’s actually happened so far, when talking about healthcare.”
  • “Now what does this mean? What does this mean? Think of it. It means no one will ever have to drop out of college again for fear they can’t repay their debt.”
  • “Look, here’s what really happened. You be the judge. Here’s what really happened.”

Questions and answers

Clinton didn’t just pose questions; he answered them. And like a good journalist, he asked a lot of “why” questions. His answers conveyed confidence and hope.

  • “Now, why is this true? Why does cooperation work better than constant conflict? Because nobody’s right all the time, and a broken clock is right twice a day.”
  • “Now, why do I believe it? I’m fixing to tell you why. I believe it because…”
  • “Are we better off because President Obama fought for health care reform? You bet we are.”

The end

Strong writing ties together beginnings and ends. Clinton began his speech with the refrain “I want.” He ended it with the same verb, but placed the emphasis on the American people: “If you want America — if you want every American to vote and you think it is wrong to change voting procedures — just to reduce the turnout of younger, poorer, minority and disabled voters — you should support Barack Obama.”

Similarly, at the beginning of his speech, Clinton said Obama is “a man who burns for America on the inside.” At the end, he returned to the fiery analogy, saying: “We come through every fire a little stronger and a little better.”

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  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Thanks, Kenn!
    ~Mallary

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Dan,

    My piece is based off of the speech Clinton delivered.

    ~Mallary

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=749911534 Anonymous

    so , aha, Mallary, so if Much of his speech was adlibbed,as you now admit, that makes me THINK you wrote your piece based on the scripted text you got in advance and NOT on the actual speech itself as delivered and that is SLOPPY REPORTING, yes or no.? Fess up. because your post read like it was a critique of the text you got in advance, NOT the actual speech and that is CHEATING….admit it. yes or no? and i forgive you too. SMILE danny x-ray vision man

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=749911534 Anonymous

    so , aha, Mallary, so if Much of his speech was adlibbed,as you now admit, that makes me THINK you wrote your piece based on the scripted text you got in advance and NOT on the actual speech itself as delivered and that is SLOPPY REPORTING, yes or no.? Fess up. because your post read like it was a critique of the text you got in advance, NOT the actual speech and that is CHEATING….admit it. yes or no? and i forgive you too. SMILE danny x-ray vision man

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=749911534 Anonymous

    so , aha, Mallary, so if Much of his speech was adlibbed,as you now admit, that makes me THINK you wrote your piece based on the scripted text you got in advance and NOT on the actual speech itself as delivered and that is SLOPPY REPORTING, yes or no.? Fess up. because your post read like it was a critique of the text you got in advance, NOT the actual speech and that is CHEATING….admit it. yes or no? and i forgive you too. SMILE danny x-ray vision man

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=749911534 Anonymous

    update time? – > The Atlantic looked at “What Bill Clinton Wrote vs. What Bill Clinton
    > Said.” Freelancer David Dobbs wrote, “Transcript of Bill Clinton’s
    > on-the-fly changes to speech: Almost every change improved it;
    > *really* hard. Wow.” Ed Yong, also a freelancer, tweeted, “So, who
    > wants Bill Clinton to edit all of their pieces from now on? hand>” You can sign us up for that one too, please.
    >
    > BuzzFeed also compares Bill Clinton’s prepared speech to his ad-libs.
    > Cotton Delo at Advertising Age said, “This redlined copy of Clinton’s
    > speech (and how he changed it) is a nice glimpse into a fascinating
    > brain.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=749911534 Anonymous

    hmmmm update time? MT? — re ”> The Atlantic looked at “What Bill Clinton Wrote vs. What Bill Clinton
    > Said.” Freelancer David Dobbs wrote, “Transcript of Bill Clinton’s
    > on-the-fly changes to speech: Almost every change improved it;
    > *really* hard. Wow.” Ed Yong, also a freelancer, tweeted, “So, who
    > wants Bill Clinton to edit all of their pieces from now on? hand>” You can sign us up for that one too, please.
    >
    > BuzzFeed also compares Bill Clinton’s prepared speech to his ad-libs.
    > Cotton Delo at Advertising Age said, “This redlined copy of Clinton’s
    > speech (and how he changed it) is a nice glimpse into a fascinating
    > brain.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=749911534 Anonymous

    UPDATE : i was right, MT, you need to update re “The Atlantic looked at “What Bill Clinton Wrote vs. What Bill Clinton > Said.” Freelancer David Dobbs wrote, “Transcript of Bill Clinton’s > on-the-fly changes to speech: Almost every change improved it; > *really* hard. Wow.” Ed Yong, also a freelancer, tweeted, “So, who > wants Bill Clinton to edit all of their pieces from now on? hand>” You can sign us up for that one too, please. > > BuzzFeed also compares Bill Clinton’s prepared speech to his ad-libs. > Cotton Delo at Advertising Age said, “This redlined copy of Clinton’s > speech (and how he changed it) is a nice glimpse into a fascinating > brain.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/kenn.amdahl Kenn Amdahl

    Well written article. Thanks. — Kenn Amdahl

  • http://twitter.com/mallarytenore Mallary Tenore

    Hi Frank,

    Thanks for reading the piece and taking the time to comment. I did read Bennett’s piece and thought it was really interesting. BuzzFeed did something similar: http://bit.ly/QottPJ

    I agree that Clinton’s speech was a little long. He at least balanced short and long sentences, though, so that helped a little!

    ~Mallary

  • http://twitter.com/mallarytenore Mallary Tenore

    Thanks, Michele! I’m glad you found the piece helpful and that you plan to use it as a resource.

    ~Mallary

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=749911534 Anonymous

    I did have one qusetuon, internet ate it earlier. Was the BILL speech really scripted or did he give it ex tem? from here in Taiwan, watching on CNN, it looked like informal back slapping bill at this best, but was he readign speech from telepromter really all of it or just some or what? you said text was 6000 words so i assume you have text, even beforehand. can you explain. thanks dan

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rB0k21sGT_A&feature=related Phaerisee

    I do like Romney’s business experience, but his Gordon Gecko-esque tenure at Bain Capital concerns me. I also have a problem with him calling himself pro-life. In fact, Romneycare provided for taxpayer funded abortifacients (Pharmaceuticals that cause spontaneous abortion) How many evangelicals and catholics know this? He also is continually calling himself a christian to gain votes, when most of us learned in Sunday school that this is not the case.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGFAph3lWqw

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=749911534 Anonymous

    Just a note about the Governor Crist speech today at the DNC: The CNN International news crawl at bottom of my screen in Taiwan read when he first got up to speal “Governor Christ of Florida”…I kid you not! I was corrected in like one nanotenth of a second because just seconds later the next image read “Governor Crist of Florida”….– this is an example of what newsrooms now call “an atomic typo” — a typo so small that even spellcheck cannot “See” it….it needs the human touch. Fixed now.

  • http://twitter.com/micheleweldon micheleweldon

    Reallt great column, Mallary. I am going to follow these strategies in my own speeches. Thanks for the info.

  • Frank Witsil

    Mal,

    Thanks for the analysis.

    If you haven’t seen it, Dashiell Bennett offers this take. He compares the written speech with the one that was delivered: http://tinyurl.com/d9kyzl7. Bennett concludes that Clinton’s edits improved the speech.

    Although, as you point out, a little more editing could have made it shorter — and perhaps better.

    Frank

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Thanks for taking the time to read the article and post a comment, Susan. I’m glad you found it interesting.

    ~Mallary

  • http://www.seowebmarketing.co.uk/ Susan

    Such an interesting article and I think he was very clever in his (planned) speech, very much ‘part of the people, we are in it together’ kind of feel, clever communication skills and wonder hope all is true and the democrats do a good job for America. Thanx for posting.
    - Sue

    http://www.twitter.com/GoogleExpertUK