What Business Communicators Can Learn from Hillary Clinton

For days in advance of the first Democratic presidential debate, the TV network pundits opined on the candidates’ challenges, strengths and absolute must-dos to capture voters’ attention. It wasn’t hard to pick out the themes. Bernie Sanders needed to broaden his appeal and explain why he’s electable; O’Malley, Webb and Chaffee needed a “Carly Fiorino” moment to simply show up on voters’ radar; and Hillary Clinton – well, while Hillary was expected to “win on policy,” they said she needed to “warm up” her image  in terms of both content and style. The general “rap” on Clinton is that she is smart, experienced, and strong, but often comes across as harsh, cold, and impersonal, yelling in a flat monotone and failing to connect with audiences on the campaign trail.

I’ll leave it to the pundits to analyze her answers and their political impact; as a communications expert and speaker trainer I can tell you that she came across extremely well. She was poised but not overly polished, quick, funny, substantive and highly quotable.

Clearly, the debate format plays to Hillary’s strengths.  Unlike large stump speeches, where she has to be heard over a roaring crowd, here she had a microphone, an attentive quiet audience, and the floor to herself when responding to questions.  She didn’t have to yell or even raise her voice.  She already had years of experience, having done 25 debates to her opponents’ zero.  But most importantly – and I cannot stress this enough — Hillary is a classic over-achiever, and she prepares like a star athlete for events like this. In fact, she was so well-rehearsed, she appeared almost unrehearsed. I call this “planned spontaneity.” You can’t do this kind of thing off the top of your head; there’s no way.  The only way to be crisp, concise and impactful but also appear unscripted, is to prepare and practice slavishly, as Hillary so obviously had.

How did she do it?  It’s not rocket science.  In a nutshell, she and her advisors developed themes and messages that she would articulate no matter the question.  Then they predicted every possible question and practiced her answering the questions and “bridging” back to her messages. It’s exactly what we teach our clients, and we recognize it takes a tremendous amount of work.  Is it worth it?  Well, that depends on whether you want to achieve your goals.  Hillary Clinton clearly “crushed it,” (as one TV reviewer put it) at the first debate, and if she keeps going this way she will likely win the democratic nod to become the next President of the United States. You tell me – is it worth it?

In contrast to Hillary, Webb came across as a whiner, complaining about getting too little floor time, Chaffee struggled to answer questions about his Congressional voting record, and O’Malley did well but didn’t stand out.  Even Sanders had trouble nailing important questions in concise sound bites.

We know that effective communication matters (a lot) in Presidential campaigns. The perception that he was boring certainly didn’t help Al Gore in 2000. Being masterful communicators were among Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton’s greatest assets.  And the classic textbook case: 1960, when a sweaty and unpolished Richard Nixon appeared on national TV next to John F. Kennedy, who came across as cool, collected and…well….Presidential.

It will remain to be seen as to whether Hillary will perform as expertly at future debates, and importantly, whether she can improve her performance and generate real excitement on the campaign trail.  But for now, she’s on a roll…..one that could – maybe — propel her all the way to the White House.



Penny Daniels is a strategic communications consultant and coach for pharmaceutical and device companies, academic institutions, government, and non-profits. As an accomplished writer and former national broadcast journalist, Penny uses her expertise to help 3D clients communicate effectively in challenging environments, including FDA Advisory Committee meetings. Penny excels at empowering communicators to optimize their own individual styles to meet audience needs and achieve business and organizational goals. Connect with Penny on LinkedIn.