3 Techniques Bill Clinton Uses To Wow An Audience

Bill Clinton has decades of public-speaking experience, a deep well of charisma, and record high favorability ratings. But even mere mortals can borrow a few of his simple techniques to make our own presentations shine.

President Bill Clinton took primetime stage at the Democratic National Convention last night and once again mesmerized, tantalized, and energized his audience.

Watching his performance, it’s easy to forget this is the same guy who was almost booed off the stage at another Democratic Convention 24 years ago while introducing candidate Michael Dukasis.


The relatively unknown Clinton of those days was scheduled to speak for 15 minutes, but droned on for over a half-hour. His biggest applause line came at 32 minutes, when he said, “and in conclusion…”

But always the Comeback Kid, Clinton saw his failure and focused with laser intensity on polishing his speaking abilities. And most folks today, regardless of political leanings, recognize him as one of the best speakers of any generation.

The basic speaking techniques Clinton embraces, front and center last night in Charlotte, when he impressively ad libbed about 15% of his speech, to great effect, can be used by you to boost your presentation skills.


Here are three of his most powerful tools:

1. He knows when to stop and go.
Clinton uses hard-stop pacing to add emphasis to lines like: “We’re going to keep President Obama on. the. job.” and “President Obama started with a much. worse. economy.” In those moments, he squeezes every word for maximum impact.

And Clinton has no fear of dead air, using frequent pauses to garner attention and gain drama: "Listen to me now. [pause] No president, [pause] not me, [pause] not any of my predecessors, [pause] no one could have fully repaired all the damage…"

2. His gestures sync with his words.
Clinton’s best visual aids are his hands. His arm movements are open and wide, relaying an image of accessibility and authenticity.

To guide the audience’s emotion and attention, he often extends his hands with palms facing up or out: “Let me ask you something [palms up]…” or “Folks, this is serious [palms out]…”

He’ll also overlap hands in front of chest to reinforce intimate statements such as, “This is personal to me…”

As in earlier years, his index fingers serve as tireless pointers, but he uses less of the short, jabbing motion familiar in the past. He now lets his index finger flow through the air, with an element of inclusion, as he says things like: “And I hope you and every American remembers…” Or he’ll bring one index finger downward as a long, slow declarative action when saying “…and far more important, it passes the value test.”

3. It's how he says it, as much as what he says.
If you subscribe to Mehrabian’s formula of communications as 7% verbal, 38% vocal and 55% visual, then you’ll appreciate how Clinton uses facial expressions to put his words on display.

He offers a small, knowing smile when saying, “and that brings me to health care…”

He raises his chin in defiance when saying, “let’s take a look at what’s actually happened so far…”

Clinton bites his bottom lip with frustration after stating, “and they refused to compromise…”

And he squints his eyes with determination when delivering lines like, “democracy does not have to be a blood sport…”

Use Clinton’s techniques to up your speaking game.
Am I suggesting you try duplicating Bill Clinton’s delivery? Absolutely not. A speaker must be true to herself or himself. But the advice I offer to my presentation-skills workshop participants is this: When giving a presentation, be yourself--but be the best version of yourself. Your audiences expect and deserve your very best when you’re before them.

As you prepare for your next presentation, review Clinton’s Wednesday-night speech. Then practice using pauses, pacing, gestures and facial expressions to help your talk rise to a higher level of likability and effectiveness.

What tricks do you use to help make your speeches memorable? Tell us about it in the comments below.

--Author Sam Harrison is a speaker and workshop leader on creativity-related topics and presentation skills. He is the author of IdeaSelling: Successfully Pitch Your Creative Ideas to Bosses, Clients and Other Decision Makers; IdeaSpotting: How To Find Your Next Great Idea; and Zing: Five Steps and 101 Tips for Creativity on Command. He can be found at zingzone.com.

[Image: Flickr user NewsHour]

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70 Comments

  • I agree. The article makes some great points, but the videos are very long to wade through, so the impact is much reduced.

    Here’s how to <a href="http://remotepossibilities.wordpress.com/2012/06/01/analog-presentation-tips-1-use-a-flipchart-video/#youtube_tip"><strong>jump to <em>part</em> of a YouTube clip [link].</strong></a>

  • Phil Harris

    Clinton always uses great pauses and expressions that fit
    with his speaking style.  What I liked
    best about the speech was that he brought out key points in very conversational
    tone. The conversational speech voice was awesome!

  • Lauren Schaad

    Thank you, Fast Company, for the great read!  Clinton is quite the orator.  In an old acting class, I learned to practice presentations both in fast-forward (speaking ridiculously quickly) and slow-motion (speaking sloooowly).  This way, when you're nervous on speech day, the "hyper" feeling is already familiar to you and you adjust accordingly.  Furthermore, you'll recognize if you're too laid back and needing to up the energy. 

  • Pat

    Thanks for your observations about Bill's speech. Beyond techniques, the critical ingredient is "connection".....which has to precede "techniques."  Bill's well being rests on connecting with others,..it is his oxygen..He puts everything into making that connection...all else follows and his listener (even 60,000 of them!) believes s/he is the only one he is attending to.  Pat Drew.  

  • Saidas108

    Clinton bites his bottom lip with frustration after stating, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman!”

  • martin

    I learned to let people know what I wanted them to remember and then repeat it throughout the speech/presentation and then as the last thing (before thank you). I also learned to say 'Hello'.

  • Dathaeng

    Sorry, I disagree with Sam Harrison. In fact, Biden made an impactive no-nonsense speech - more effective and appealing. CLINTON'S STICKING OF HIS LEFT INDEX FINGER IS AGAINST ANY NORM OF A GOOD SPEAKER.  It only reminds his audience of his famous quote " I DID NOT HAVE ANY RELATIONSHIP WITH THAT WOMAN!!" 

    The convention speech by Ryan Paul was more gripping and was like a painter who knows which colors to choose for what objects.  

    It is not that Clinton is ineffective, his moral character overshadows his mouth. He could not conduct or handle a genuine conversation with Fox's Chris Wallace - instead he threw tantrums and left the place. Is this a mark of a good speaker. 

  • yes and no

    Bill Clinton is a brilliant man and was always both a strong leader and administrator, a combination not always easy to find.  He is a great Presidential communicator as well, right behind Reagan. His actual incorporation of meaningful content (whether you agree with all of it or not) puts him miles ahead of Obama.  
    What you mention, Dathaeng, brings to mind another advantage he currently enjoys: passage of time.  People have had years to forget his shining lack of integrity as President (and many don't even remember).  He also looks good at this point in comparison to our current President, both to his fans (who filled the room, as several have also mentioned) and foes.  
    While his significant persona within the Democratic party was a huge part of the message he gave, I do think this article was a great analysis of the most replicable aspects of his speech.

  • Gcubed

    Good speaker does not need to be a good listener. It is important not to be boxed into a corner by pre-determined interviewer biases. Clinton did the right thing and did not answer. Know the outcome before you commit

  • W. Michael Hsu

    Definitely one of the most respected and praised speaker I've ever had the pleasure of listening to. Thanks for the sum up on a few tips for us to practice upon to become more effective communicators. Cheers.

  • Seth

    A great speach by Bill Clinton incorporates superficiality to mesmarize the simple-minded, and conceals the bullsh1t of what he's saying.

  • Mds_90056

    really?  this article is about delivering a speech and the techniques used,
    not a political statement.  try and stay on topic and keep the sarcasm off this site.

  • Reader

    I agree with you on President Clinton's speaking effectiveness.  Have you noticed that, when one uses these same engaging techniques in the corporate workplace, one is often described as unprofessional or too animated for executive roles.  Just an observation.

  • JWK

    While I thought he did a great job and is a great speaker he fell into that trap that many great speakers fall into.  He forgot that he is not the "headliner" and his speech overwhelmed President Obama's.  Keeping yourself within the scope of the goals and objectives of your speech is important.

  • Sandra Zimmer

    Ditto MIchael Borger's comment! When Clinton speaks he captivates because he is willing to be  authentic, he is comfortable in his skin and present in the moment.