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Why Hillary Clinton Fails to Communicate

First, the facts: Hillary Clinton made history as the first woman to win the Iowa Caucuses. She won by a razor thin margin, which may have been disappointing to her, her team and her supporters, but that’s all you ever need to win, whether you’re running for President of the PTA or the USA. So let’s give her that, at least.

Second, unlike a lot of people, it didn’t surprise me to see Hillary Clinton do less well than expected in this first contest of the election season.

For candidates at this level to win (or win big), they have to inspire voters through 5 communication channels:

  • Message
  • Personal narrative (your formation story, hero journey, etc.)
  • Presentation
  • Interpersonal skills, and
  • Spouse (yep, your partner — or lack thereof — makes a difference)

These don’t all need to be nailed down, just the majority. Some (message and presentation) hold more weight than others. And they don’t have to be perfect or even great… just better than the opposition.

So you’d think after 25 years in the public eye, after running for president – not once, but twice – on a scale of 1-10, Hillary Clinton would be a 10! At least an 8 or a 9. Instead, she’s somewhere around a 6, give or take. And that won’t be enough to win this thing. So what’s going wrong? Well, a few things.

1.  Muddled message. What is her slogan? If you cannot answer that, you see the problem. Now Sanders doesn’t have a good slogan either. He has a chant, “Feel the Bern” (which I find kind of icky, but I can see where his supporters might like it). And he’s testing out a slogan that he lifted from Obama’s campaign. (They all steal stuff from other successful campaigns, by the way. There are only so many words that will do the trick. But this Obama slogan feels too recent to me for stealing. We’ll see if he sticks with it.) Slogans need to be aspirational, about the future, which is why Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and Rubio’s “A New American Century” have such great power. They also have to be easy to remember and have a ring to them when you say them. They make you feel good. The first thing I saw when I went to Clinton’s website after the big night was: “I’m with her.” Huh? People will only connect with you if your message is aspirational and gives them hope.

2.  Personal narrative: We haven’t heard much about her story and what we already know, we don’t necessary feel inspired by. There is a compelling story in there somewhere. How do I know? Because everyone has one and no, it doesn’t have to be “I was homeless and now I’m running for president.” Everyone has struggles. We need to hear about hers. BTW, we haven’t really heard much about Bernie’s struggles, either, so note to Bernie. Whose have we heard? Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are two great examples. Go read John Kasich’s. They’re compelling and make these guys more relatable. A compelling personal narrative tells people you’re like them, you get them, you have walked in their shoes in some ways.

3.  Presentation: Mostly she screws this up with her voice. (Click here to read yesterday’s New York Times on this exact topic in which I was quoted.) Now some of the criticisms out there are sexist – this culture doesn’t tolerate what it perceives as power displays by women. Beyond sexism, there is an entire new generation of voters who’ve never heard a woman’s voice in campaign mode at this level; men’s voices have been the gold standard by which women’s voices are measured. Still, she could do better vocally. She mistakes volume for expression. So instead of using the wide range of pitch in her speaking voice to make us lean in and listen, she increases her volume, which paradoxically limits her ability to be expressive. This translates as yelling and we’ve already got one of those in Sanders, whose voice is very unpleasant to listen to. And don’t head over to Cruz’s videos for any good examples of vocal expressiveness. His level of expression is so wide, so practiced, and so calculated, it sounds phony. He needs to go run a mega-church or something. Rubio, on the other hand, has this nonverbal code nailed for the most part. Definitely listen to him for a sound that is very pleasing and fluent. And I know he’s a man, but women’s voices can be pleasing and fluent, too.

The final two, interpersonal skills and spouse, will become more important as the campaign progresses and the candidates culled. Interpersonally, I think she’s pretty good. The spouse issue brings up a lot of stuff, a lot of it not necessarily favorable, but would be history-making, so get ready for that onslaught.

In the meantime, here’s what you can learn by observing this master class in public communication:

  1. Get very clear on your message and repeat it until you can’t stand it any more.
  2. Develop your personal story and practice telling it so people can discern your core values and philosophy to feel more connected with you.
  3. Work on your presentation skills. This is the biggest, most important thing you can do.

Becoming a great public communicator, the best marketing spend you can make, will return dividends far beyond your wildest dreams.

6 thoughts on “Why Hillary Clinton Fails to Communicate”

  1. Hi Ruth, that was a great video! You were very clear on why Hillary is not as successful as she should be. I’m going to pass on this video to my son who is a government major college and crazy about politics. I’m also going to work on my slogan for my Pilates business. Thank you again Ruth!

  2. Ruth, LOVE your perspective on people in the news! Is another book coming out re all of this craziness!
    My response to Hillary is more negative than positive. Her facial expression and voice ring cold and detached; uncaring and often evasive. So often she is so angrily defensive rather than matter-of-fact.
    When she tries to be honest, “Look…” she still comes across as putting others down, ignoring the “facts” that have been thrown at her, or helpless against monsters out to get her.
    Then I see her compassionate side and she touches on something deeply human and I’m all for her again. Examples have been when thanking someone from the audience. She seems sincere and real, compared to the hand shaking of as many hands as possible in robotic fashion that we see when she is “interacting” with the public.
    The other times I’ve felt a warm connection is when others
    have shared stories of her work in the past with such adoring
    accolades. One example, a woman who attended the first conference on women in China. Don’t remember the details, but Hillary was “one of us,” and “made a huge difference.” You could hear (feel) the the effect Hillary’s presence made on women from all countries as other women’s comments were shared. VERY powerful. Where are all of those women who are grateful and proud of Hillary? I can’t help but wonder if Hillary hasn’t actually “alienated everyone who has worked with her,” as many reporters have claimed. (And as reporters claim of Ted Cruz.) Where are those supporters for Hillary?
    Thanks again for your contributions! I can’t get enough of your insights and advice!
    Respectfully and Gratefully, Barbara Smailey

  3. Hi Ruth,
    I totally get why you think Hillary is not as popular as she could be. I get confused by her message and she assumes we know what she has done. If she tells us more about what she actually accomplished we might believe her more. She also is not offering radical or novel solutions that people are hankering for; a way out of the mess we are in. I agree also that her voice could be more convincing, though when she acts less defensive she often comes across as someone we would want to lead us through the fire of the next 8 years.

    Regarding Bernie, his message is clear as a bell and even though his voice is raspy his message still comes through, except when he is pissed off, of course. He has had trouble with his voice for many years. When he keeps a cool head though, he really connects. At the end of the Feb. 4th NH debate, he really touched me when he talked about his father seeing him running for president. I choked up, right at the moment he did when he said his father thought our country was really great.

    Your recommendations to Hillary were so good that I sent the link to Bernie’s campaign in hopes he could come across as smooth as Marco. But you know, I believe that Bernie would blow Marco off the map in a debate between them two.

    Take care and thanks so much for you thoughtful commentary on political debating presence and viewer perceptions.


    1. Thanks for your comments, Tom. Agree with you on Bernie’s message – very clear and very aspirational. To me, however, it’s one-note and I’m very concerned he hasn’t learned enough during his many years in public office. He is a deft politician, regardless of his efforts to convince voters otherwise. I was also quite disconcerted with is lack of facility re: foreign affairs. He BS’d his way through those answers and came across confused and unknowledgeable. It is a concern. He is a smart guy and should be much better prepared in this area. That being said, I, too, thought his closing remarks were powerful. He should develop that more.

      Several months ago, when it seemed a lock for Hillary, I said the only GOP candidate she needed to worry about would be Rubio. Now that Bernie is a player, that also goes for him. Even if you’re not worried, the campaign should be because, in the end, like it or not, the better communicator wins and Rubio is a brilliant communicator. The substance matters little, sadly. If you want him to win, send that to his campaign.

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