On Saturday, Hillary Clinton (finally) announced that she was running for president. In a video posted to her website, Senator Clinton, sitting in what looked like her living room, officially entered the ’08 race. I always love to watch political candidates and analyze their communication styles mainly because they provide so much fodder. I believe that at the presidential level, the better communicator will win the election. Going back as far as Ronald Reagan, this has been true. By the way, the candidate does not have to be great (some of you may remember the first Bush v. Dukakis), just better.
So, how’d she do? Pretty well, I think. It was a performance that I, for one, had never seen from her. She has always had an issue with her public persona, coming across as cold and hard-edged, charisma sorely lacking, making it difficult for her to connect. For those reasons and because she has a reputation for being polarizing and is despised by many, I have been telling anyone who would listen that she didn’t have much of a chance of winning a primary, no less a general election.
In the video, Mrs. Clinton looked relaxed, comfortable, even like she was having some fun. She called it a conversation and so she tried to make it sound conversational. One of her biggest problems has been her vocal technique; in her political speeches, she has always made a classic vocal mistake, substituting volume for expression (Al Gore does this, too). She did not do that this time. Instead, her vocal variety was natural, allowing her feelings to show through her voice. Her eye contact was direct, but sincere. She used her hands naturally, discarding the usual habit of keeping them motionless, resting on the lap during a “talking head” type TV appearance. Her head tilted and turned appropriately. She leaned forward and moved purposefully but smoothly, changing position at one point by resting her arm on a pillow while continuing to gesture from the new position. Her outfit was not a distraction and blended with the earth tones and general neutrality of the décor.
As far as the production values go, they were mostly excellent. The lighting and makeup were both flattering. The sound picked up on the best parts of her voice, eliminating her tendence toward nasality. There was something going on with the camera doing this nearly imperceptible panning during the close-up shots –- not sure why that was -– perhaps to trick the viewing eye into believing there was movement when there really was not -– I just don’t know about that.
The most interesting thing to me was that her verbal message said nothing new but her nonverbals did. She seemed reasonable, likeable and warm, hard edges considerably softened. And given a choice between the words themselves and how someone looks and sounds when saying them, people will generally be more influenced by the latter.
As Hillary Clinton has no doubt discovered, albeit somewhat late, style matters. It makes a difference. And for political candidates at the national level, video style — on television or on the Internet — will make or break a candidacy because these are the places the electorate gets its info about candidates. They don’t read newspapers or policy papers. In addition, people vote for candidates they like, or at least like better than the competition, and who seem more like themselves. You can’t get that type of information by reading.
So, the questions now become, can she sustain the new communication style? Will it develop into charisma? Will her personal “story,” yet to be told, be well crafted? (Remember George W. Bush as a brush-clearing rancher with a dusty pickup truck and a dog v. John Kerry, Nantucket windsurfer?) Those questions will have to remain unanswered for the time being.
The fun begins.