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10 Things I Learned About Connection from President Bill Clinton

Guest post by Sean Stephenson, Author of Get Off Your “But”: How to End Self-Sabotage and Stand Up for Yourself

Note from Phil: I’m always curious how the best do what they do. Bill Clinton is the BEST connection artist I’ve ever seen, and though I don’t agree with all of his personal foibles, I have to admire the way he made everyone around him be connected to him quickly and effectively. I always wondered what tips he would share. Of course, I wasn’t able to get to him to ask him, but I was able to get one of his former intern’s insight, and now I can share that with you. Enjoy!

Love him or loathe him, you can’t deny that Bill Clinton is a masterful connection artist. I’ve seen him in action many times, and he’s a wonder to behold. How does he do it? How can he connect with people who despise him, and within a few minutes have them laughing, hugging, and listening closely to him? 

During the time I worked for the president as a White House intern, I watched him closely, trying to figure out his secret. The first thing I noticed was that he always paid very close attention to how other people were feeling. If they retreated emotionally during an exchange, he immediately reengaged them and brought them back on course. He had an infinite number of techniques, but these were the ones I saw him use most often: 

1. He told a story. This was far less intrusive — and way more effective — than making his point directly. And his story would always evoke specific emotions from the listeners — laughter, anger, compassion — that would help them connect with what he was communicating.

2. He made physical contact. On many occasions, he would place his hand on your shoulder, back, or forearm as he spoke, passing his energy on to you kinetically. 

3. He remembered your name. This one baffled and amazed me. The number of people a president meets in the course of one year in office is overwhelming. He couldn’t possibly remember them all. Yet if Clinton met you on more than a few occasions, he would retain your name perfectly and use it every time he spoke to you. Which brings us to the next point. 

4. He called you by name. Whether he remembered it or had to glance down quickly at your name badge, he would make sure to call you by name more than once in the course of his conversation with you. During one of the recent post-term visits I had with him, he walked into the room and said warmly, “Sean, boy am I glad to see you.” Someone once told me that the sound of our own name spoken in a loving tone is one of the most soothing sounds we can ever hear. I agree. 

5. He made deep eye contact with you. Once President Clinton’s eyes locked onto yours, they didn’t leave until the interaction was complete. In all my years of talking to celebrities, from sports icons and Hollywood starlets to business moguls and politicians, few have used this technique with such finesse. Most of these ego-monsters can’t hold the connection more than a few seconds before they start scanning the room for someone more important to talk to than the person right in front of them. Yuck! 

6. He used his facial expressions to convey his emotional state. President Clinton would greet you with a smile in his eyes on a joyous occasion, and with sad eyes and an expression of empathy in moments of devastation. If he was upset about something, it showed on his face like a summer storm. I’m sure there were times, as there are for all of us, when he felt one emotion and projected another. But he never seemed false around me — he was always successful in conveying the emotion he wanted to show. 

7. He calibrated his vocal inflections and volume based on the amount of rapport he had established. If the rapport was strong, he would be more boisterous in his volume. If it was weak, he would have a more soft-spoken demeanor. Simple, but effective. 

8. He asked for your opinion. The first time the president turned to me and asked, “Sean, what are your thoughts on that?” I thought, “Did he just ask me for my opinion?” Whether he asked because he really wanted to know or because he knew it was tremendously flattering to be asked a question by the leader of the free world, I’m not exactly sure. I do know that it felt good, and I remember it to this day. Humans love to give their opinions on things. On those rare occasions when we are actually asked our thoughts on something — and we are listened to — it makes us feel tremendously important. 

9. He chose his words wisely. Never once did I catch President Clinton taking the verbal low road, slinging slang with disregard. He carefully selected every word to create just the right expression he was looking for. 

10. He praised you publicly any chance he got. On July 24, 1998, 1 was attending an event in the Rose Garden, when out of the blue the president said, “I’d also like to thank Sean Stephenson, [Boys Nation] class of 1996, now an intern in Cabinet Affairs. Thank you for what you are doing here.” Then he nodded and smiled in my direction. Was he doing that because it was standard protocol, or because he really was truly grateful for my service at the White House? I’m going to choose to believe the latter. It felt great. 

Sometimes I affectionately refer to President Clinton’s gift of connecting to those who don’t like him as “the carwash phenomenon.” Dignitaries and their families — specifically the ones who were skeptical and unfriendly toward him — would enter the White House through the East Wing gates, often with expressions of disdain. They would take a tour of all the public areas and then work their way over to the president’s office in the West Wing, to meet with him. A few hours later, when they exited the White House through the West Wing gates, they looked completely different. It was as if President Clinton, like a cosmic car wash, had magically washed away their scowls and replaced them with expressions of pure relaxation. Absolutely remarkable! 

It’s been said that Clinton’s greatest skill is his ability to communicate. I would disagree. I believe his strongest suit is being able to connect. 

The above is an excerpt from the book Get Off Your “But”: How to End Self-Sabotage and Stand Up for Yourself by Sean Stephenson. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

Excerpted from Get Off Your “But” by Sean Stephenson. Copyright © 2009 by John Wiley & Sons. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

16 Responses to 10 Things I Learned About Connection from President Bill Clinton

  • I was priviledged to meet Bill Clinton at a reception in Washington while he was President. He was making the rounds of the room, and when he got to me he looked directly into my eyes and clasped my hand and, I swear, time seemed to stand still. I stammered something and he smiled and said thank you and moved on. The whole encounter probably lasted 5 seconds, but I was left with the impression that he had waited his entire life just to come to that reception and meet me. I’ve never forgotten it, and the memory is as vivid as if it just happened.

    It’s a charm and an ability to directly connect with another person that can’t be faked and, I don’t believe, can be learned. You either have it or you don’t, and Bill Clinton certainly has it.

  • Hi Phil .. thanks for giving us that excerpt .. those 10 points should be what we strive for .. and they do make a difference – don’t they? It’s a really useful post .. we all need to learn and practise them. I like the phrase .. ‘his greatest strength is being able to connect’. I admire people who remember what you’ve told them and your name .. it shows an interest .. so often ignored by most people .. = they’re not interested!

    Thanks Phil .. I’ll remember this post and the ten points ..
    Have a good weekend .. Hilary Melton-Butcher

  • great piece
    i was congressional coordinator for Hillary and worked the rallies where Bill was. Odd thing is even with a name tag he never called me by my name even though i told him twice and saw him about 7 times over the campaign period of 2 years

  • phil
    sure would too. all he ever said was hey girl good to see you again, every encounter never Hi Carry

  • I like this post.

    Short and simple.

  • This was all very interesting~~how may I communicate w/President Clinton?

  • Phil,

    Great excerpt. I have seen President Clinton only once in person and it was only a speech (no direct interaction) and even on stage with the moderator you could see a few of these approaches.

    I think of all these I try really hard to work on the remembering names and “deep eye contact.” I think these are the two hardest, but most effective. I’m sure there is a correlation.

    The other tip I want to work on more is opening with a story. Good storytellers are always great networkers. It makes it so much easier to open a conversation. Of course, that too takes practice.

    Thanks for sharing this great excerpt with us Phil.

    • I think you’re right Bill. The harder something is, the more effective it is. Remembering names is definitely a skill. I’ll be posting an article on how I do this later this week.

      And looking deeply into someone’s eyes takes practice, but it totally works.

      Great meeting you at SOBCon! Hope to see you again soon!

  • Phil, thank you for posting such a wonderful post. I have just been reading a post on Tim Ferris’s blog called, “How It Works: Clinton’s “Reality Distortion Field” Charisma”, which led me to a book called, “The Power of Eye Contact” that starts off with stories of Bill Clinton’s legendary use of eye contact.

    That led me to Googling, “Bill Clinton eye contact”, which led me to this post.

    I’m a big fan of the synchronistic journeys we can find ourselves on with the internet. I sure am happy I found this post.

  • Amazing stuff Marshall. Thanks for following your gut and finding me!

    Warmest regards today and every day!

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