September 6, 2012

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

While 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.


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.”


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.”


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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Mallary Tenore Tarpley is a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody College of Communication and the associate director of UT’s Knight…
Mallary Tenore Tarpley

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