Hillary Clinton’s Communication Skills

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First, the facts: Hillary Clinton made history as the first woman to win the Iowa Caucuses. She won by a razor thin margin, which may have been disappointing to her, her team and her supporters, but that’s all you ever need to win, whether you’re running for President of the PTA or the USA. So let’s give her that, at least.
Second, unlike a lot of people, it didn’t surprise me to see Hillary Clinton do less well than expected in this first contest of the election season.
For candidates at this level to win (or win big), they have to inspire voters through 5 communication channels:
Personal narrative (your formation story, hero journey, etc.)
Interpersonal skills, and
Spouse (yep, your partner — or lack thereof — makes a difference)
These don’t all need to be nailed down, just the majority. Some (message and presentation) hold more weight than others. And they don’t have to be perfect or even great… just better than the opposition.
So you’d think after 25 years in the public eye, after running for president – not once, but twice – on a scale of 1-10, Hillary Clinton would be a 10! At least an 8 or a 9. Instead, she’s somewhere around a 6, give or take. And that won’t be enough to win this thing. So what’s going wrong? Well, a few things.
1. Muddled message. What is her slogan? If you cannot answer that, you see the problem. Now Sanders doesn’t have a good slogan either. He has a chant – “Feel the Bern.” (Which I find kind of icky, but I can see where his supporters might like it.) And he’s testing out a slogan that he lifted from Obama’s campaign. (They all steal stuff from other successful campaigns, by the way. There are only so many words that will do the trick. But this Obama slogan feels too recent to me for stealing. We’ll see if he sticks with it.) Slogans need to be aspirational, about the future, which is why Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and Rubio’s “A New American Century” have such great power. They also have to be easy to remember and have a ring to them when you say them. They make you feel good. The first thing I saw when I went to Clinton’s website after the big night was: “I’m with her.” Huh? People will only connect with you if your message is aspirational and gives them hope.
2. Personal narrative: We haven’t heard much about her story and what we already know, we don’t necessary feel inspired by. There is a compelling story in there somewhere. How do I know? Because everyone has one and no, it doesn’t have to be “I was homeless and now I’m running for president.” Everyone has struggles. We need to hear about hers. BTW, we haven’t really heard much about Bernie’s struggles, either, so note to Bernie. Whose have we heard? Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are two great examples. Go read John Kasich’s. They’re compelling and make these guys more relatable. A compelling personal narrative tells people you’re like them, you get them, you have walked in their shoes in some ways.
3. Presentation: Mostly she screws this up with her voice. (Click here to read yesterday’s New York Times on this exact topic in which I was quoted.) Now some of the criticisms out there are sexist – this culture doesn’t tolerate what it perceives as power displays by women. Beyond sexism, there is an entire new generation of voters who’ve never heard a woman’s voice in campaign mode at this level; men’s voices have been the gold standard by which women’s voices are measured. Still, she could do better vocally. She mistakes volume for expression. So instead of using the wide range of pitch in her speaking voice to make us lean in and listen, she increases her volume, which paradoxically limits her ability to be expressive. This translates as yelling and we’ve already got one of those in Sanders, whose voice is very unpleasant to listen to. And don’t head over to Cruz’s videos for any good examples of vocal expressiveness. His level of expression is so wide, so practiced, and so calculated, it sounds phony. He needs to go run a mega-church or something. Rubio, on the other hand, has this nonverbal code nailed for the most part. Definitely listen to him for a sound that is very pleasing and fluent. And I know he’s a man, but women’s voices can be pleasing and fluent, too.
The final two, interpersonal skills and spouse, will become more important as the campaign progresses and the candidates culled. Interpersonally, I think she’s pretty good. The spouse issue brings up a lot of stuff, a lot of it not necessarily favorable, but would be history-making, so get ready for that onslaught.
In the meantime, here’s what you can learn by observing this master class in public communication: