Giving a speech and then taking questions is tough. You need to prepare both for what you want to say and for what you might have to say.
Now think about giving a speech and taking questions – before the US Congress and on live television.
That’s what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did yesterday, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee about the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012.
There has been a lot of discussion on the content of Secretary Clinton’s remarks and on this issue more widely – what was said, what was done, and what should have been done. I’d like to focus purely on the delivery of the speech to see what we as public speakers can learn.
In her prepared remarks before the Senate, Secretary Clinton spoke with confidence and authority. Her pacing was calm and measured; her voice was stern and professional.
She looked down at her notes and read from her speech most of the time. Normally, I counsel my clients not to read from notes, but in a situation like this where every word is recorded and analyzed – this is one of those situations where you don’t want to stray from the script.
Having said that, I still think Secretary Clinton could have used more strategic eye contact with the committee members instead of intermittent glances in their direction. For instance, I think she could have looked them in the eye when thanking them and saying she was “very grateful for this opportunity” to testify. This might sound trivial, but I always look someone in the eye when saying thank you, especially on stage. It’s an opportunity to connect personally and immediately with each and every member of the audience.
There’s been a lot of talk about the Secretary choking up as she talked about placing her arms around the family members of those killed in the attacks. Even in formal speeches such as this one, I think authentic moments of emotion can be very meaningful, provided that they don’t derail the speaker or the speech.
I noticed that Secretary Clinton’s voice could have used a little more breath support. Particularly, she had what I call “crunchies” – a crackle in her voice, especially at the ends of sentences. I normally recommend that speakers breathe using their diaphragm so that a constant flow of breath supports their voice and gives it power until the very end of the sentence.
There was a noticeable difference between the fluidity of the speech and the choppiness of the answers – indeed, it is much harder to take questions than to read from a script. And the questions weren’t easy. The Secretary’s pacing and eloquence were less smooth, and she used some crutch words like “you know,” “but, but,” and “um.” She wasn’t afraid to jump in and interrupt even as she was being interrupted, which you can either appreciate or resent depending on how you feel about her answers.
There’s a lot we can learn from Secretary Clinton’s testimony. She demonstrated pacing, poise, and power – and she also showed us that even practiced speakers have areas where they can improve.