The Reason Bill Clinton's Speech Sounded Like a Love Story

July 27th 2016

Lucy Tiven

On Tuesday, President Bill Clinton closed the second night of the Democratic National Convention with a memory-filled speech advocating for his wife, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Though Clinton has been a vigorous advocate for the former first lady's campaign throughout the election season, Tuesday's speech told a very different story about Hillary Clinton than the resumé items often used to describe her.

With the exception of a few policy digressions — including comments on immigration reform, Hillary Clinton's healthcare advocacy, and a brief acknowledgement of his own political legacy — Clinton's speech was structured more like a love story or coming-of-age tale than a conventional political speech.

He traced a narrative from their 1970s courtship to Hillary Clinton's 2016 candidacy, but dwelled lengthily in the past.

The Arkansas native used carefully chosen anecdotes to humanize the Former Sec. of State and shed a sentimental light on her present-day political aspirations.

This was a smart move.

The Clintons have been ceaselessly characterized as career politicians by their Republican opponents and critics within their own party this election cycle. In Tuesday's speech, Clinton addressed these concerns by subtly spinning the story of his wife's political rise into a tale about a passionate, driven young woman chasing her dreams, rather than an opportunistic, Washington insider coldly climbing the ladder.

On Vox, Ezra Klein recently delved into the gap between the positive way Hillary Clinton's colleagues describe her and her negative public image.

"She is careful, calculated, cautious," Klein observed. "Her speeches can sound like executive summaries from a committee report, the product of too many authors, too many voices, and too much fear of offense."

When Klein spoke to people who previously worked with the candidate, they described her very differently, he explained. "Their Hillary Clinton is spoken of in superlatives: brilliant, funny, thoughtful, effective," he wrote.

Bill Clinton's attempted to communicate the human side of Hillary Clinton that can often elude even those who support and like her. In a sense, he spoke less like a politician and more like a memoirist, folding his subject's human side, achievements and values in a single story.

Humans respond powerfully to stories.

"They connect us to a larger self and universal truths," Pamela B. Rutledge Ph.D., M.B.A, explained on Psychology Today. Stories appeal to our emotions and can make us feel intensely connected to those included in them as well as other listeners. We first hear and share them as children, and continue to find comfort in their narrative structures as adults.

They also spur our imaginations, and allow us to envision ourselves in place of their characters, Rutledge explains.

By the same token, stories can be dangerous in so far as they are capable of impacting us powerfully whether or not they are true.

As Cody Delistraty wrote for the Atlantic in 2014, "humans are inclined to see narratives where there are none because it can afford meaning to our lives, a form of existential problem-solving."

So it makes sense that Bill Clinton's speech has been widely praised by pundits, and has not been subjected to the routine fact-checking that typically dominates social media during significant political speeches and events. And the DNC isn't alone in telling tales — last week's Republican National Convention also utilized emotional appeals in stories about crime victims and other anecdotes.

While Bill Clinton's speech may have won points for the Clinton camp, in a greater sense, it illustrated that a well-told story can overshadow run-of-the-mill campaign rhetoric.