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7 Things Leaders Can Learn from Bill Clinton About Connecting With People

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Delivering his monologue after the midterm elections last week, David Letterman was talking about President Obama’s low approval ratings and landed a great line:

“Take a look at this: gas under $3 a gallon -- under $3 a gallon. Unemployment under 6 percent, whoever thought? Stock market breaking records every day. No wonder the guy is so unpopular.”

As Letterman said, before delivering his punch line, being president of the United States is a “lonely, lonely gig.”

Being an ex-president of the United States? Not so much. According to Gallup, the most popular ex-prez is Bill Clinton. His approval rating earlier this year was 64 percent. There are probably a lot of reasons for that. Most presidents are more popular out of office than in. In Clinton’s case, he likely gets a lot of credit for the work he’s doing through his foundation. He also does a lot of public appearances and is a master communicator and connector.

Earlier this week, I got to see exactly how much of a master President Clinton is when he spoke to a packed house for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council. For just under 90 minutes, Clinton held an audience of 1,500 people rapt as he answered questions on everything from Ebola to education to Putin to what his most favorite thing was about being president (that last question was submitted by the moderator’s fourth-grade son).

There were a lot of things I noticed Clinton doing that makes him world class at connecting with an audience. There were a lot of lessons that leaders can use to connect with their people. Here are seven:

Know Your Stuff. President Clinton would be an awesome contestant on Jeopardy. No matter what topic came up in the Q&A, Clinton had an informed point of view backed up with stats and specifics. People are much more likely to listen to and connect with leaders who are well-informed.

Talk to Individuals. Even with all he knows and has done, Clinton avoids coming off like the smartest guy in the room. One of the ways he does this is by making liberal use of the second person. For example, he often says things like, “Now, what you might find really interesting is . . .” The way he uses the second person makes it feel like he’s talking just to you even though you’re one of 1,500 people in the room.

Be Optimistic. Clinton evokes a can-do spirit of optimism. One of the very first things he said in the session in respect to the United States was “the trend lines are better than the headlines.” He then proceeded to cite numerous reasons why he believes that’s the case. When he wrapped up the session he came back to that same theme by saying, “Good news is not always newsworthy” and then stating a few more reasons why he believes the United States is better positioned than any other country to succeed over the next 20 years. Fact-based optimism connects with people. (Define reality and offer hope -- my favorite definition of leadership.)

Boil It Down. The last paragraph had a couple of examples of how Clinton boils his main messages down to memorable lines. A couple of others I wrote down: “The No. 1 job of global citizens in an interdependent world is to raise the positive and reduce the negative impulses,” and “You should never sneeze at a small victory. It might have great implications.” When leaders can boil down their themes to memorable takeaways, they connect with people.

Make It Personal. Among the questions for Clinton was the one from the fourth-grade classmates of the moderator’s son: “What was your favorite thing about being president?” Clinton’s first response was a quiet “All of it. Even the worst days were good days.” Then he said his favorite thing was hearing the personal stories of individuals who had been affected by his work. As an example, he told a story about being on the New York-D.C. shuttle a few years after his presidency and being approached by a flight attendant who wanted to thank him for the Family Medical Leave Act. A few years earlier both of her parents were terminally ill and she and her sister had to leave their jobs to take care of them. She told Clinton that with all the talk of family values she felt like taking care of your dying parents was an important family value. The FMLA made it her possible for her and her sister to act on that. Leaders who make it personal connect with people.

Tell Stories. Clinton is a master storyteller and pretty much included at least one compelling story in every answer he gave. One of the more memorable ones was about a call he got from Nelson Mandela when they were both president of their countries and reinforcing the other’s point of view about the importance of working with the opposition. Effective leaders use stories because people connect with them.

Treat People With Respect. The last three questions came directly from three young high school students who stepped up to the microphone and did an amazing job of posing solid, succinct questions to the president. Clinton made sure that each one of those kids got a personal word of acknowledgement from him. People notice when leaders treat the least powerful people with great respect. That establishes connection.

(Image via Jose Gil/Shutterstock.com)

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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