Thursday, September 6, 2012

The conventions of rhetoric: Bill Clinton's seductive speech

Leaving aside politics for a moment as best I can (probably "not very"), I wanted to talk a little bit about the rhetoric being used at the two political conventions before the last speeches tonight, in hopes of keeping an eye/ear out for them.

I wish I were an expert at rhetoric instead of merely an interested observer, and a fairly ill-informed one at that. But let me explain that what I mean by rhetoric is the classic dictionary definition: the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing.

In fact, I think saying "inflammatory rhetoric" or "divisive rhetoric" is an inaccurate use of the word. Mostly, I'm interested in what makes speeches (and sermons) persuasive. If all you're able to do is confirm the previously held beliefs of your listeners, you are not good at rhetoric. Good rhetoric changes people's minds, or at least opens them to new perspectives.

That's what I found so compelling about Bill Clinton's speech last night. It was designed to persuade. It was, dare I say, seductive.

If you look at the transcript, you'll see how he pulled listeners in deeper and deeper, and how very geared this was towards Republicans and undecideds.

He starts by talking about how grateful he was to Eisenhower, Reagan, and both Presidents Bush. He told listeners that Democrats are not always right ("nobody's right all the time and a broken clock is right twice a day"). He explained how Republicans devour their own who disagree with them. And he showed how Obama included Republicans--and former competitors--in his cabinet. That "Heck, he even included Hillary" line? That's an implicit, "Boy, do I understand that you didn't get the person you wanted to be president." All of this sets him up in the listener's ears as a friend and ally, not foe. It softens the listener up to receive the arguments that follow.

[an aside: look at how often he says "grateful" at the beginning of the speech. That is a modest word, putting him in the one-down position, a receiver of good things.]

His next move is to point out the good things about the Republicans and what they said at the previous week's convention:
They looked good, they sounded good. They convinced me that they all love their families and their children, and we're grateful they've been born in America, and all -- really, I'm not being -- they did. And this is important. They convinced me they were honorable people who believe what they've said and they're going to keep every commitment they've made.
Note the "really, I'm not being..."  First of all, if you saw it, that little phrase came across as (and I think it was) an unscripted remark--responding to the reaction of the crowd at that moment. (Update: That whole thing about how they love their families was ad libbed.) That's a good public speaker: able to take in the crowd's reactions and incorporate it into the moment. Secondly, what's the word after "being"? Sarcastic? Disingenuous? Dishonest? That, my friends, is a brilliant public speaker who can in the instant leave the perfect gap for listeners to fill in.

Note too how he repeated his point in new words: "They convinced me" and again with the positive take-away "they were honorable people who believe what they've said and they're going to keep every commitment they've made."

HERE IS THE KEY TURNING POINT IN THE SPEECH--do you remember what he said next? Here it is:

"We've just got to make sure the American people know what those commitments are."

That is the turn. He's made nice, he's gotten people to believe he is a fair actor, he has been reasonable, grateful, friendly, and sincere. And now he is going to spend a great deal of time unpacking the policies set forth during the Republican convention.

Note the "we." It's not "I've got to make sure." He has seduced you, hasn't he? He's brought you right in next to him. Up until this moment it was "I want to nominate," "I'm grateful," "Did you watch the convention? I did." And now it's "We" and you're right there next to him.

I won't go through the rest, though it's also fascinating. But for anyone in a public speaking role, please note how much time Clinton spent getting the crowd on his side--and that the crowd includes people who detest him. You can't just make your case and expect people to agree with you. Woo them, people. Use your words.


piman said...

Classic debate team rules. Almost unbeatable when done well.

LKT said...

Indeed. I just wish people could apply that outside of debate team and understand that most times you can't argue people into agreeing with you.