Two Commencement Speeches, 48 Years Apart
48 years ago, graduating senior Hillary Rodham delivered the first-ever student commencement address at Wellesley College, which effectively launched her political career as she fired back at claims Senator Edward Brooke had made during his own speech earlier in the ceremony.
Hillary Rodham’s 1969 Address
Last week, in a much-anticipated return to her alma mater, Secretary Clinton addressed the graduating class of 2017. Once again, we knew her remarks would lean political, and we couldn’t wait to tune in.
Hillary Clinton’s 2017 Address
One of the most valuable things about the QC communication analytics platform is that it enables us to track speakers over time, giving them an objective look at exactly how much they’ve evolved in their communication skills and audience impact. We were excited to put this feature to work comparing Clinton’s performance on the Wellesley graduation stage in two addresses delivered nearly 50 years apart.
Surprisingly, Clinton’s QC Score Actually Decreased from 1969 to 2017
The decline wasn’t sharp, but it wasn’t what we were expecting. Even with nearly 50 years of spotlight experience bridging the gap between the two events, Clinton had not demonstrated overall improvement.
The QC Score is a holistic representation of a speaker’s performance in any given event, comprising measures of content effectiveness, delivery skills, and audience perception. In an effort to understand the drivers behind Clinton’s drop, we dove in to the characteristics that make up her QC Scores.
What we found was fascinating.
In 48 Years, Clinton Gained Authority, but She Sacrificed Charisma
Throughout the 2016 election, one of the most common complaints we heard about Clinton was that “she just wasn’t relatable.” She didn’t have that charisma that drew voters to her and made constituents feel like she was one of them.
A 14.1% Drop in Charisma between Commencement Speeches Reflected Clinton’s Campaign Woes
When we talk about charisma, we tend to chalk it up to an elusive quality that some of us are born with and, for the rest, that’s just too bad. However, in reality, charisma is a quality that can be both measured and learned.
Or, in Clinton’s case, lost.
The Decline in Charisma Can Be Attributed to a 10.8% Drop in Passion and an 11.4% Drop in Engagement
Next time you’re watching a friend tell an emotional story—whether she’s excited or enraged—watch her body language and listen to the rate and tone of her voice. Can you feel her emotions, regardless of her words?
The most passionate, most engaging speakers rely on their bodies, faces, and voices as well as words to tell their stories. And the emotions they’re demonstrating are contagious.
While there was no video available for Clinton’s 1969 commencement speech, we compared the audio from both addresses. We found that, in the first event, she used more effective variations in rate and pitch to imbue her voice with 33.4% more emotion, making it far easier for the audience to catch on.
The finding matched our intuition. Clinton is infamous for keeping the emotion off the stage, and her calculated rate of speech, measured vocal tone, and minimal gestures frequently make it difficult for listeners to feel the passion behind the script.
The result of that stoicism? Clinton’s 2017 address was 49.5% less memorable than the speech she gave 48 years prior.
Clinton’s Lack of Charisma May Be a Survival Strategy
Many have wondered whether Clinton’s reticence stems from the extra pressure she is under as a woman to remain composed and stoic, no matter the circumstance.
In a recent article for NY Magazine, Rebecca Traister cites Clinton’s struggle to walk the line between charisma and professionalism during the campaign. According to her speechwriter, Dan Schwerin, male candidates like Sanders and Trump succeed in large part by channeling their constituents’ anger, making them highly relatable. But when a woman raises her voice or demonstrates passion, she is more likely to be seen as shrewish or hysterical.
As Clinton herself put it in her interview with Traister, “There is a stark difference between men and women when it comes to success and likability. So the more successful a man is, the more likable he is. The more successful a woman is, the less likable she is.”
In many ways, Clinton may have been stuck between a rock and a hard place, required to choose between charisma and respect in a way her opponent never had to. We can only hope that, as she steps back into the spotlight with the pressure of the campaign off her shoulders, we’ll see her start to regain the charisma she demonstrated as she addressed her classmates at her graduation from Wellesley.
On the Other Hand, Clinton Demonstrated Clear Authority with an 18.2% Lift over Her 1969 Address
The most authoritative speakers look and sound in control, assuring their audiences they have the experience and knowledge to support their claims and follow through on their promises. It would be easy, then, to write off Clinton’s increased authority on stage as a side effect of her long political career. And, to some extent, that may be true. However, executive communication expert Briar Goldberg says that, with the right preparation, even the greenest 20-something can be authoritative on stage—and without it, the most seasoned veteran can come off as an inexperienced newbie.
One of the most critical outcomes of all that preparation is a speech the audience knows has been tailored just for them, and Clinton’s address last week provided a best-in-class example.
Her Authority in 2017 Was Driven By a 17.5% Increase in Personalization
In addressing the 2017 graduates of her alma mater, Clinton did not shy away from the elephant in the room that was the 2016 election. However, she personalized the topic for her audience, framing that discussion with vivid, emotional language that turned her loss into a series of stories the Wellesley graduates could use to propel their own next steps.
In fact, Clinton used 18.3% more storytelling language in this year’s address than in 1969.
Vaclav Havel, the playwright, the first president of the Czech Republic, wrote an essay called “The Power of the Powerless.” And in it he said, the moment someone breaks through in one place, when one person cries out, the emperor is naked. […]
What he’s telling us is if you feel powerless, don’t. Don’t let anyone tell you your voice doesn’t matter. In the years to come, there will be trolls galore online and in person. […]. They may even call you a nasty woman. Some may take a slightly more sophisticated approach and say your elite education means you are out of teach with real people. In other words, sit down and shut up. Now, in my experience, that’s the last thing you should ever tell a Wellesley graduate.
And here’s the good news. What you’ve learned these four years is precisely what you need to face the challenges of this moment. […] I can still remember the professors who challenged me to make decisions with good information, rigorous reasoning, real deliberation. I know we didn’t have much of that in this past election, but we have to get back to it.
—Hillary Clinton, 2017 Commencement Address, Wellesley College
Turning her political ideologies into vivid stories served Clinton well in her commencement address, and it’s a technique that likely would have given her a leg up during election season. Politics is, after all, more about the stories than the policies.
By considering her audience’s background, perspective, and needs, and framing the narrative of her election loss in language specific to them, Clinton created a personalized experience with tangible takeaways. And by doing that, she made sure these new college graduates would internalize her story and make her lessons their own.
For many of our clients, the ability to track progress—and identify ongoing strengths and challenges—is one of the most useful applications of the QC platform. The 48-year span between Clinton’s addresses to Wellesley graduates gave us a rare opportunity to reach deep into a speaker’s past, and the surprising decline in her QC Score led us to uncover the fascinating drivers and external pressures behind her performance.
As Clinton continues to shape her new role following the election, you can be sure we’ll be tracking.