Brit Hume, a conservative political commentator and television journalist, said that former President Bill Clinton “is the most talented politician [he’s] ever covered and the most charming man [he’s] ever met.” He added, “No one in my view can frame an argument more effectively than he can.”
While working for the 2012 Mayor of London Campaign in the UK, my academic thesis was on political communications strategy during presidential debates.
I found Bill Clinton had one of the most effective approaches to connecting with his audience and individuals he communicated with.
It was his approach and communications ability, which set him apart from his political opponents and lead to his presidential success.
One part of his approach was his ability to empathize with his audience.
Bill Clinton was a master at empathizing with his audience
Connecting with others wins elections
The above video clip offers insight to why Brit Hume, a conservative, was impressed by President Clinton.
David Mercer, the former deputy finance chair of the Democratic National Committee, described the Bush/Clinton debate as an “iconic moment in the long history of presidential debates”.
Combined with the news from a New York Times article which stated “he [President Bush] was out of touch with average voters”, the debate made the choice clearer to voters, as to whom they felt or perceived to be the more understanding candidate.
We can see a few clear steps the former President puts into action when he connects with his audience. We will outline the steps below.
Before we get into the four steps, let’s start by defining what empathy is.
What is empathy and why is it important?
Empathy: The ability to sense other people’s emotions and to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. (See the full definition here.)
Can we become more empathetic with other when it comes to speaking?
We can improve our ability to empathize with others.
There are a variety of steps we can take to improve our ability to relate to our audience too, which we will outline below.
“Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate and to connect with people.”
-Jayson M. Boyers (former chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore)
3 Simple steps that will help you relate
Today, we will look at how you can empathize with your:
- Event organizers
- Your network of speakers
Step 1. Find a common personal experience
It is quite common to hear people at social events bonding over a common struggle or goal. Why? Because these things connect us.
The same reasons we connect with others in our daily life, we can apply to our presentations to connect with our audience. For example:
What is your audience's, event organizer's or network of speakers’ common struggle or goal? Are you speaking to sales professionals or teachers? Do you understand how difficult it is making cold calls 40 hours each week and struggle to close sales?
As a teacher, did you have a difficult student in your class?
Talking about a common personal experience builds a bond between people.
Step 2. Find a parallel
Daniel Pink's Book' "A Whole New Mind" argues that one of the crucial skills that will be required for leaders of the future is "Boundary Crossing".
A boundary crosser is someone who can "cross-apply what one learns in one field of study, to another apparently unrelated field." (Pink 2005).
As a Campaign Manager in the 2014 Elections, our team often used boundary crossing when interacting with potential donors and voters of my client (a candidate running for State Treasurer).
We often found potential voters didn’t understand what our client’s responsibilities were, as the State Treasurer.
In conversation we would draw an analogy between their career responsibilities and our client's, to help them understand what our candidate's role and impact as the State Treasurer were.
Boundary crossing for speakers
Maybe your next audience will be composed of professionals in the fitness industry and they are aspiring to become future speakers.
Here is a way we can relate better to personal trainers and help them understand what is required to succeed in the speaking industry.
As a speaker you may say:
“Similar to how you wouldnt have your clients sign up for a marathon next month if they never ran before, we wouldn't want to sign ourselves up to speak in front of an audience of 10,000 if we never spoke before!”
“The same way personal trainers gradually increase the difficulty of each workout, to condition a clients muscles and tendons, we should do the same when preparing for our speeches. Starting out in front of smaller and friendlier audiences helps us prepare and improve our speaking skills to handle more difficult and larger groups.”
Note: Daniel Pinkman also provides us with other examples of boundary crossing in his book, "A Whole New Mind".
Step 3. Reflect on others' experiences
The next time you are talking to an audience member, event organizers, or someone from your network of speakers, I recommend to look to these 3 areas to help you relate to them.
What strategic issues do they need to overcome?
How can your message and expertise solve this problem?
Have you had to overcome similar obstacles and how?
Can you determine their concerns and meet their needs as a speaker?
How can you simplify the moving parts and plans they are dealing with?
What can you offer them that other speakers cannot?
With your network of other speakers:
How can you help them progress in their speaking careers?
What are some shared experiences you both can learn from?
Where can you collaborate with each other’s businesses objectives?
How to succeed as a speaker
Like with physical training, start gradually. Speak in front of audiences you know will more likely relate and connect with your message. Gradually build up to those who you know will give you more challenges.
Think about the groups of professionals with whom you already have the most in common. Were you a former teacher or sales professional? It may be easier to come up with analogies in speeches where you have some shared experiences with the audience..
Start with those groups of people you can you solve the most problems for because of, for instance, shared professions or beliefs. These are the audiences you can you have the greatest impact on, financially, professionally, or emotionally.
Empathizing is not only important in our personal lives, but also in our professional lives, especially as speakers.
Although we may not be able to relate directly to everyone in our audience, there are a variety of tools and strategies that will allow us to improve our ability to connect with them.
Former President Bill Clinton’s first Democratic Convention speech in 1988, was seen by many in the Democratic Party as the end of his political career.
Connect with Greg Voegtle
Greg is a U.S. Political Consultant and Geopolitical Consultant (most recently for NATO), who specializes in strategic communications and analysis. He has spoken on geopolitical issues and helped lead a Scenario Team at the Strategic and Tactical level Military Bases and Headquarters in Europe and The Republic of Georgia.
- Pink, Daniel H. A Whole New Mind: Why Right-brainers Will Rule the Future. London: Cyan, 2006. Print.
- https://www.cnn.com/2016/09/26/politics/presidential-debate-mistakes-history/index.html https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/16/bill-clinton-debate_n_1971685.html
- Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future Paperback – March 7, 2006 by Daniel H. Pink