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Sep 11 / King Kaufman

Bill Clinton’s DNC speech as a model for persuasive writing

Former President Bill Clinton’s speech was overwhelmingly named the highlight of last week’s Democratic National Convention in a Pew Research Center poll, and whatever your politics, you can’t deny the skill involved in keeping an arena-full of people hanging on your every word for more than three-quarters of an hour, which Clinton did.

So how did he do it?

Mallary Jean Tenore reviews the “10 rhetorical strategies that made Bill Clinton’s DNC speech effective” at, and while some of those strategies are native to the spoken word, the post offers some insights that writers can use.

Here, according to Tenore, are the 10 rhetorical devices Clinton used:

  • Contrast
  • Repetition
  • Inclusive language (as in “we Democrats” and “my fellow Americans”)
  • The “rule of three”
  • The power of one (a word that stands alone)
  • Humor
  • Instructional language (as in “Now listen to this”)
  • Explanatory language (as in “Here’s what really happened”)
  • Questions and answers
  • The end (a strong ending that ties to the beginning)

Read Tenore’s post and see if you use any of these rhetorical devices when you’re trying to be persuasive. Or better yet, if you don’t but you think you can start.

Are there other rhetorical devices not mentioned that you find effective in your writing?

  • Ken Kraetzer

    A story about President Clinton was that he grew up in a household without a television so he learned at a young age to be a good storyteller. He gave a speech to a dinner I attended a few years ago and presented an impressive amount of expertise on his topic. When I had the chance to say hello, for 15 to 20 seconds he looked me in the eye giving me his full attention. He asked how my Dad a WWII veteran liked the new WWII Monument in DC. I said he liked it very much. The former President then said, “Tell your Dad, Thank You”.

  • afreshup

    Wow, I knew you guys were located in San Francisco, but bringing politics into sports is bludgeoning a sacred cow. Specifically oozing and awing over President Clinton’s speech at the DNC.

    So what does this tell me?

    Why not use an example of one of the many fine speeches at the RNC? My guess is that nobody at this left leaning San Francisco based company even bothered to watch the RNC convention; and if they did it was for the purpose of critiquing and posting their disapproval on The Daily Kos.

    I’m sure if somebody from BR replies to this comment the message will be “we just used President Clinton’s speech as an example.” My reply to this hypothetical reply is “why the DNC?” Why Clinton? The answer … it’s in your wheelhouse, it’s what you consider “main stream” … Did you join Chris Mathews and get tingles running up your leg?

    • King_Kaufman

      Your imaginary conversation with “somebody from BR” notwithstanding, I did not choose Bill Clinton’s speech just as an example. I wrote about a long, detailed examination of Clinton’s speech on a journalism website. Here is why I think Poynter chose to write about Clinton’s speech, and why I would have written about it, as opposed to “one of the many fine speeches at the RNC,” if I had been looking for a 2012 convention speech to write about,:

      - There were no speakers at the RNC who had 20,000 people eating out of their hand for 48 minutes.

      - There were no speakers at the RNC whose speech was widely praised, in non-partisan terms, as an example of rhetorical brilliance. That is, while there were plenty of pundits who commented on speeches at both conventions in terms of whether the commenter agreed or disagreed with the speaker, or whether the speaker had scored political points, Clinton’s speech was unique in being praised as a particularly striking example of skillful speech-making.

      - One of the major elements of skillful speech-making is skillful writing. Therefore, a close examination of a particularly skillful speech is relevant to writers, the audience for this blog.

      This blog post, like the Poynter piece it is about, is not political, except to the extent that you think anything nice said about your political enemies is a political statement. Remember Sarah Palin’s debut speech at the 2008 RNC? She hit that out of the park. She was great that night. I don’t agree with a single opinion that woman has ever expressed, including in that speech, but that was a great speech. It’s not a political statement by me to say that. It’s an opinion about the skill she put on display as a speaker that night.

      • Schottey

        +1 to King

  • Kelly Scaletta

    “And here’s why” or something of the sort is something that Clinton says almost every time he speaks and it’s something that as writers we could really copy.

    And here’s why.

    It does two things simultaneously. It grabs someone’s attention in the sense that it tells you you’re about to learn something. Rhetorically, this is a great device. It says “you’re about to learn something so listen up. Pick up your pencil and take notes.”

    Second, it means that the speaker/writer actually has to give a reason. It keeps the communicator honest. It’s something that is really helpful to use in writing and I try to do that with everything I write.

    State an opinion, and then state a why. For every piece of analysis, I try to have at least one supporting fact. If I don’t have a fact, and can’t find one, it means my opinion is on very shaky ground.

    The thing about a good speech and/or article isn’t just about what you do say it’s about what you don’t say. Substance breeds respect. Like him or hate him, few question that Clinton is intelligent.

    The biggest reason for that is he always has a “here’s why.”