There’s an old adage about speechwriting that I always fall back on when I’m at a loss about style and tone: Above all else, know thy audience.
Which is why, in any other setting or at any other time, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech on Wednesday might have been a bust. But she and her speechwriters do their homework as well as anyone. They understand that speeches on similar subjects can sound different, feel different and produce different results depending on the audience.
So, why was that audience mindset so important? Because it allowed her to develop a speech that was forthright, pragmatic and built with the purpose of offering up a framework for the Obama Administration’s foreign policy without the burden of having to be entertaining.
Make no mistake: This was not necessarily an entertaining speech. Contrast this speech, for example, to a shorter and lighter speech given to employees of the State Department on roughly the same subject. That one is filled with more humor, is more personable and, perhaps, is even more pleasurable to hear.
This speech is not like that. That is not a criticism. The audiences are different, and they have different needs. Employees may need humor and cajoling. This audience—both the one in the room and the one receiving it via the media—needed easy-to-understand language about what the country’s foreign policy actually is: straightforward language in clear sentences.
Besides, I may be speaking heresy here, but not all speeches have to be entertaining. They have to hold the audience and deliver a message in a way that can be understood. But they don’t necessarily have to be entertaining.
This speech is a great example. It was a serious speech about a serious subject and it was crafted in a classical (and practical) problem-solution structure.
The problem: “…the international agenda today is unforgiving: two wars, conflict in the Middle East, ongoing threats of violent extremism and nuclear proliferation, global recession, climate change, hunger and disease, and a widening gap between the rich and the poor. All of these challenges affect America’s security and prosperity, and they all threaten global stability and progress.”
The solution: A five-step approach to rebuilding the country’s foreign policy that has, at its heart, “…a new era of engagement based on common interests, shared values, and mutual respect. Going forward, capitalizing on America’s unique strengths, we must advance those interests through partnership, and promote universal values through the power of our example and the empowerment of people.”
This is a very workmanlike talk. Short on humor. Heavy on policy. But, like most of her speeches, there was still room for some nice stylistic work that helped the audience—even with the seriousness of topic—pay attention.
A few examples:
• The problem-solution structure is one easily recognizable by all audiences.
• The five-step solution allows the audience to follow the progress.
• Sentence variation—long sentences followed by short, staccato lines—throughout is handled nicely and avoids a sing-songy pattern.
• She avoids jargon.
• There are some simple declarative statements that reinforce confidence and control. Drumbeat statements like: “They are wrong” … “Here’s how we’ll do it” … “In today’s world, that’s global malpractice,” and “We cannot go back to Cold War containment or to unilateralism,” are powerful tools for speakers to demonstrate command.
Plus, she delivered it with characteristic strength. Forceful at the right moments. Using her hands—and pointing with her finger—to reinforce important lines helps tremendously.
The overall success of her speech must be gauged over time. But her address is a great example of how to use a broad forum to begin the process of framing the arguments and key messages for your audience.