Don't Stop Thinking About... The Issues

Bill Clinton put on a master class in political persuasion last night at the Democratic Convention. His 48-minute opus – half prepared, half-improvised – effectively made the case for President Obama’s re-election to undecided and moderate voters, dismantled many of the key arguments being promoted by the GOP, and re-energized the Democratic base in anticipation of the final push towards election day. 

There is nobody else in politics, or in public life for that matter, who could have delivered that speech – Bill Clinton has magical powers when it comes to communicating with and engaging with people.  Still, there is an important lesson that anyone in the business of communicating, marketing or speechwriting can take away from his performance: substance matters.

“Clinton on Wednesday avoided this kind of Oprah-style mood music in favor a more potent skill — his ability to convey the concrete human dimensions of public policy,” explained John Harris and Jonathan Martin in their analysis of Clinton’s speech.  They added: “repeatedly, Clinton cited a barrage of facts and figures, woven with historical context, sometimes in a highly argumentative way.”

Most politicians avoid talking about substantive issues. Brands, nonprofits, everyone avoids talking about substantive issues.  They focus instead on storytelling and branding. The belief is that if you connect with someone on an emotional level they’ll be motivated to take action. But it’s not true. Storytelling is important, but it is not enough.  People take action, whether its voting, donating, buying, or simply changing their behavior in some small way when they understand and appreciate the impact of those decisions.  Stories alone can’t do that.

Audiences are smart enough to understand complex issues when they are explained effectively.  Clinton understands that – and showed as much in his speech. As Harris and Martin noted “…his emphasis on policy has the effect — and in large measure the reality — of seeming to treat voters as adults who must be reached by reason, rather than Hallmark-card sentimentality.

Bill Clinton connected with the audience – in the room and across the country watching on television – on an emotional level, as well as intellectually. Both are important.  So talk about the substance.  It will change everything.