Listening to her voice

I seldom watch political speeches. I watched her speech because it was an historic moment: the acceptance speech of the first woman to be nominated for U.S. President by a major political party.

I also watched it because wanted to understand why people don’t like Hillary Clinton.

In the first five minutes, I was afraid that she had blown it. She was stiff. I wasn’t too sure whether she was made of plastic.

She did gradually warm up, and the words of the speech itself got the job done. Plenty of anecdotes and weighty examples of all the reasons that she is qualified to be president. Pithy and funny one-liners perfect for quoting and Tweeting.

No, the substance of the speech wasn’t a problem.

But her voice.

She speaks in a very controlled way. Every syllable is clipped. Every word is very e-nun-ci-a-ted.

Chelsea Clinton, by the way, was much worse in that regard. Her
over-enunciation was so extreme that she sounded like she was on drugs.

I can definitely understand why Hillary Clinton would speak this way. In the last four decades she’s been routinely misquoted, misinterpreted, miscast, and villainized, and her words and deeds have been twisted in every way imaginable.

When you live under a public microscope, it’s understandable that you would go to great lengths to be clear, and to speak in a way that your words cannot be chopped and diced to mean something else. That you would do everything you can to project the sense that you are in CONTROL.

And she does project control – but to my mind, too much so.

It gave me the sense that Hillary Clinton lacks confidence.

She has no reason to lack confidence. She’s held some of the most difficult positions on earth: Secretary of State for the United States in an era when we were wildly unpopular in the world; Senator from New York during the most devastating terrorist attack this nation has ever seen; First Lady to a president who was accused of getting blowjobs in the Oval Office. And not from her.

She weathered it all and kept gaining strength. So surely she does have confidence. You can’t succeed in those jobs without confidence.

And yet, she doesn’t speak with the relaxed ease that Bill Clinton or Barack Obama does.

Both of them are great orators. They are also great storytellers.

They speak in a way that is beguiling because it is so personal. You feel like you’re sitting in your living room with them. They tell you stories as though you’re the only person in the room.

They are relaxed, at ease. Confident that you’ll like them. The idea that you might not like them simply doesn’t enter the picture.

But with Hillary, I feel her worrying and concealing the worry. As a woman who’s also worked in male-dominated sectors, I recognize that straining effort to assert one’s self.

She’s a woman who has worked hard for recognition. She is widely admired even by people who dislike her.

Yet, watching her, I groped to feel a personal connection. I was always aware that she was giving a speech.

At its worst, her affect comes across as cold.

If you are screaming at the previous sentence, hang on. This measuring stick is unrelated to gender. It also has nothing to do with her politics or her qualifications. Plenty of people who know Hillary Clinton personally, up to and including Barack Obama, attest to her warmth and caring.

Those who dislike her will attack her on other grounds, but for so many of them, their reaction is intensely emotional.

I believe it has to do with how her voice sounds. How it strikes them, vibrationally.

Her voice grates, rather than soothes. I’m just being honest here; that is how it feels to my ears, in a strictly musical sense, how tones and chords set up vibrations and are interpreted in my brain.

If you’re already pre-disposed to dislike what Democrats stand for, or to dislike the political establishment, it would be easy to hear that voice as false. Even when facts and history support the actual truth of the words she’s saying.

As I listened, I kept thinking, She lacks confidence.

The confidence to relax.

It’s the kind of confidence that prominent men seem to acquire so easily, even when they don’t deserve it. They throw it on like a cloak, and then carry on without ever seeming to question how they are perceived.

Women, on the other hand, tend to be constantly aware of how we are being judged, evaluated, represented in people’s minds.

I so wanted Hillary to forget about the haters and enjoy the love and support that she’s earned from millions of people.

I wanted her to enjoy the moment. I wanted her to relish making history. I wanted her to just love looking around that huge hall, seeing so many people of color, so many women, so many people that visually represent minorities. All of them together making up the Democratic Party that she now heads.

I wanted her to be comfortable and even joyous in being who she is: a really smart, classy, veteran member of a class of people who live to serve the nation. We called them public servants.

I wanted her to relax into that role and just let the rest of us see it.

There were moments when she had it. She talked about her accomplishments in a way that was inspiring. She had some hilarious lines. She showed glimmers of warmth.

The things she said rang true (and were rated well on fact-checking sites like Politifact). They were things I know as a reporter, as a citizen, and as a reader.

But I didn’t feel them buzzing in my sternum.

I did laugh. I did cry. And I definitely did feel that she is a sane and highly qualified person who could act intelligently and with strength and leadership as the next president of the United States.

Yet there were times when I heard a voice that I didn’t want to hear.

The voice of a scolding mother. The voice of a lecturing teacher. The voice of a female authority figure who uses that authority in a way that makes anyone who is insecure feel small – because someone made her feel small, and somewhere deep within, a part of her still feels small.

People who have mother issues, people who have been made to feel bad by teachers – some of these people are going to hate Hillary Clinton because they will hear those bad ghost voices in hers.

There’s nothing anyone can say about how qualified she is, how good she is as a person, how much she has already done for this country, how concrete her plans are for this country, that will convince those who hate her and who love Donald Trump.

They want to hear a voice that sounds like a winner. They don’t care if that voice is communicating outright lies.

Those folks are not listening to the words or checking the facts. They’re listening to a voice. And that voice is someone who projects complete confidence.

In this case, the voice of confidence is, to quote Michael Bloomberg, a con man.

That confidence may be misplaced, it may be falsely rendered. But it is the voice of someone who thinks he is a winner, and won’t hear anything to the contrary.

In these times, that’s all that people seem to need. Or all that they heed. The voice.

Today’s penny is a 2000, the year Hillary Clinton was chosen by the people of New York to represent them in the U.S. Senate.

[The featured image above is a digitally altered interpretation of a biographical photo from]

Note: Before commenting that I am an anti-feminist or wrongfully judging Hillary by some male standard, please re-read this post. 

12 thoughts on “Listening to her voice”

  1. Great post and some interesting thoughts. As someone who used to teach announcing and performance I wanted to scream at her coach — I think whoever coached her let her down big-time.

  2. Lisa, you clarified a lot of what I was thinking. But Hillary has never been a good public speaker, nor does she need to be to be a good president. Her caution, her use of a personal server to protect emails, her not giving a press conference in a year and a half — those stem from 25 years of a vast right-wing conspiracy that has targeted her and her husband. I think it was Hunter Thompson who said, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean the bastards aren’t out to get you.”

    1. You’re right about the conspiracy. However, some portion of the population will always be swayed by “image” over substance. Hillary’s better in small groups, she just needs to learn the techniques to be herself in front of huge audiences. I suspect that might come with practice – once she’s elected.

  3. Interesting insight! Made me go back and listen to both speeches. (I had only seen clips – because – since when did 10pm become prime time? For me, it is more like 8pm. I suppose I am no longer the broadcasters’ target demo.

  4. When I watch Barak or Bill in front of a large audience, it’s clear to me that they thoroughly enjoy the spotlight. There’s a hole in each of them that gets filled by the attention, the look on their faces is nearly one of relief. Hillary is different, she is not enjoying herself, not in her element. I’ve included a link to a piece I saw on the Newshour the other night and I think the woman’s insight spoke to Hillary’s discomfort.

  5. I appreciate your argument but I just don’t agree. I also have been trying to figure out all this anti-Hillary stuff and watched her speech initially afraid she’d sound stiff or shrill. I personally think she was great – she sounded confident, clear, determined. And most importantly, totally unafraid to take on what is going to be a brutal few months going against a sociopath like Trump. No, she doesn’t exude that intense personal connection you get with Bill, and to a lesser extent Obama. But really, who does? Hardly anyone. And why is that the bar? They’re different people, different styles, different personalities. I think it’s time to stop expecting Hilary to sound like anyone but Hilary. It’s her voice. It should be enough – and would be if we were talking about anyone BUT Hilary.

    As for Trump, I don’t hear the voice of confidence. I hear the voice of a two year old, unfiltered, beligerent, and desperate for attention. I can take it for about 30 seconds at a time. I pray after November I’ll never have to hear it again.

    1. Hi Terry – Bill and Barack aren’t really the bar for her to cross. I intended to draw a contrast in order to show what strikes me as a negative about her speaking in front of mass audiences. Every person has to have their own style, but from what I have read, her style in speeches to mass audiences doesn’t at all match the warmth and ease of her style with smaller audiences. Since mass audiences are the ones where she has the chance to win over some marginal voters, it seems important to me that her real self come across in those venues. I don’t believe it does.

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