TL;DR: Hillary Clinton’s “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights” speech teaches us that common sense is not always common. To communicate big ideas, it’s crucial to use language that creates a shared understanding.
So What? It’s easy to forget that struggles for human rights and dignity are still ongoing in many parts of the world. Clinton uses the long-established language of human rights to acknowledge that women, and the work of women, are often left out of the discussion.
Her use of short, impactful rhetoric tied to law and data makes this speech a lesson in cutting through the fluff and speaking directly to the heart of the matter. Here’s what great communicators can learn.
Mastering International Speech: What We Can Learn from Hillary Clinton
The notion that women deserve equal rights should be common sense… and yet, even in modern times, women often bear the brunt of oppression and inequality. When Hillary Clinton delivered her groundbreaking “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights” speech at the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women, she forced an international audience to acknowledge that the deep and lasting rhetoric of human rights often did not extend to women.
Here are the communication techniques that Clinton used to make this speech so effective.
Using Simple Language
Even though Clinton was speaking to a delegation of educated, accomplished individuals, most do not share the same lived experience–or even the same language. So she uses plain language to articulate her point.
It wasn’t just that she used simple words; she used simple words without dumbing down her message. So many novice communicators believe that “simple equals stupid,” but Clinton’s speech shows us how powerful and intelligent ideas are expressed without adorning them with unnecessary language.
Lather, Rinse, Repeat: Using Repetition
Clinton uses repetition several times in her speech. Toward the beginning, she talks about how there are amazing and powerful women all over the globe. Instead of talking about them as ideas, she repeats the phrase “I have met” for each type of woman she wants to highlight… a technique known as “anaphora:”
“I have met new mothers in Jojakarta, Indonesia, who come together regularly in their village to discuss nutrition, family planning, and baby care.
I have met working parents in Denmark who talk about the comfort they feel in knowing that their children can be cared for in creative, safe, and nurturing after-school centers.
I have met women in South Africa who helped lead the struggle to end apartheid and are now helping build a new democracy.
I have met with the leading women of the Western Hemisphere who are working every day to promote literacy and better health care for the children of their countries.
I have met women in India and Bangladesh who are taking out small loans to buy milk cows, rickshaws, thread and other materials to create a livelihood for themselves and their families. ‘
I have met doctors and nurses in Belarus and Ukraine who are trying to keep children alive in the aftermath of Chernobyl.”
This repetition helps the audience understand women not as ideas but as people who plug into politics, war, family, and the economy.
Repetition can make a longer text or speech easier to follow. Repetition makes things easier to remember. Repetition, repetition, repetition.
In marketing, it’s often useful to use anaphora to repeat key points or messages in a way that’s memorable and lasting for the audience, whether by using slogans or a clever turn of phrase.
Near the end of her speech, Clinton employs a similar technique called “epimone” (pronounced eh-PIM-o-nee). This is a broader type of repetition where the speaker focuses the audience’s attention on a repeated idea.
This time, she uses the phrase “It is a violation of human rights” and gives the audience many examples of women’s rights that are human rights. She does this to drive home the idea that the challenges that women face aren’t only faced by women, even if their experiences are often lost on the international stage:
“It is a violation of human rights when babies are denied food, drowned, suffocated, or their spines broken, simply because they are born girls. ‘
It is a violation of human rights when women and girls are sold into the slavery of prostitution.
It is a violation of human rights when women are doused with gasoline, set on fire and burned to death because their marriage dowries are deemed too small.
It is a violation of human rights when individual women are raped in their own communities and when thousands of women are subjected to rape as a tactic or prize of war.
It is a violation of human rights when a leading cause of death worldwide among women ages 14 to 44 is the violence they are subjected to in their own homes.
It is a violation of human rights when young girls are brutalized by the painful and degrading practice of genital mutilation.
It violates human rights when women are denied the right to plan their own families, including being forced to have abortions or being sterilized against their will.”
This repetition is central to women’s rights being human rights. We can recognize the violation of these rights as a universal concern, but the repetition of these rights connects with her previous repetition of the women she’s known.
Repeating ideas is one thing, but connecting those ideas to real examples of events in the world is what makes them solid and persuasive for your audience.
Using Emotional Engagement and Rational Appeal
On the surface, Clinton’s message is a rational and logical one: women are human beings; therefore, women’s rights are human rights.
The substance of Clinton’s message, though, is emotional. She appeals to her audience emotionally by invoking stories about the women she has met who are doing and making extraordinary things. She talks about the problems they face in a personal rather than a clinical way. You can tell that this issue is important to her on a personal level.
Emotional rhetoric helps Clinton connect with her audience in a way that rational rhetoric does not: as humans. They understand her feelings because they feel the same way. The emotional connection she creates invites them to care about her and what she’s saying in her speech.
Here’s the truth: people want to support people they care about. Sure, your product might be awesome, but if your audience doesn’t care about you/your company, they aren’t likely to buy what you are selling—especially if your market is highly competitive.
Creating Connections Through Universal Values
Most of the time, you will focus on all the stuff you and your audience have in common. This helps them relate to you and form that all-important emotional bond.
Hillary Clinton (even in 1995) is a wealthy, white, heterosexual woman from the United States. Her experiences and her day-to-day life are not universal. She has faced very different challenges from her audience, and doesn’t have to worry about the same things they do.
So why do they pay attention when she speaks? Why do they adopt her message as their own?
Because she manages to both put herself at the center of the story (“I have met”) and take herself completely out of it by telling the story of other women from around the world. She talks about the things that all women have in common but highlights examples that are not hers.
And when she does talk about who she wants to elevate, she talks about not who she wants to speak for, but who she wants to speak up for.
“I want to speak up for mothers who are fighting for good schools, safe neighborhoods, clean air and clean airwaves. . . for older women, some of them widows, who have raised their families and now find that their skills and life experiences are not valued in the workplace. . . for women who are working all night as nurses, hotel clerks, and fast food chefs so that they can be at home during the day with their kids. . . and for women everywhere who simply don’t have time to do everything they are called upon to do each day.”
Grammatically, it’s a small difference. Rhetorically, it’s a massive step toward being an ally rather than a lecturer.
Communication Is About Creating a Common Ground
If you want to create messaging that sticks, remember that you are talking to people, not an algorithm. To emphasize her message, Clinton uses repetition, emotional appeal, and contextual awareness. These great human communication techniques can help you, too.
Are you looking to forge real connections and relationships with your customers? Learn how Media Shower can help craft content that can reach your audience. Try the award-winning Media Shower content platform for free.