More than a few people noticed a bit of a difference in the way former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke during her 16-minute-long opening statement before the House Benghazi Select Committee on Thursday.
We've done the math, comparing the speed at which Clinton spoke at the start of Thursday's session to her opening statement the last time she answered a congressional committee's questions on Benghazi. (This is an imprecise and unscientific effort, of course, but we think it's telling.)
On Thursday morning, Clinton began her opening statement around 10:28 a.m. Eastern time and, by our count, her remarks clocked in at 16 minutes and 40 seconds. During that stretch, Clinton used 1,825 words. In other words, Clinton spoke at a rate of about 110 words per minute.
Contrast that to the way that Clinton spoke during her opening statement at a Jan. 23, 2013, Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. That day, Clinton began speaking at 9:17 a.m. and spoke for about 13 minutes nearly 14 minutes. A transcript of her opening statement indicates that Clinton used 2,049 words. That means, back then, Clinton spoke at the rate of nearly 150 words per minute.
That would appear to be a bit of a difference.
So, what was going on here? Why. Did. Clinton. Speak. So. Slowly?
Well, the first thing that must be said here is that almost no one who spoke Thursday morning or will do in the hours ahead arrived in that room without having digested large volumes of research compiled by their respective staff members. That's true of Clinton and most of the people on the select committee — particularly the Republicans trying to put her on the hot seat.
That research likely focused on the fact that Clinton's testimony at the Jan. 23, 2013, hearing (and a second later that same day) was widely understood as a bit out of control — even cold and defiant — because of her tone. It all culminated in the infamous and often context-free “What difference, at this point, does it make?" statement.
In short, if there were a list of things that Clinton needed to accomplish Thursday, it was conveying a combination of respect for the select committee's inquiry, compassion and concern for those killed, and a sense of the gravity about the events that took place in Benghazi back in 2012.
And one of the very best ways to do all of the above is to — you guessed it — slow down. That's according to Ruth Sherman, a political communications consultant and coach once on the faculty at the Yale University Women's Campaign School.
Sherman said before Clinton even took the stand Thursday that the former secretary had very likely been advised to speak deliberately and certainly to slow down the pace of her speech or even strategically pause when she wants to emphasize a point, convey something grave or project a degree of concern and solemnity that rarely comes across in rapid speech.
That can be particularly important for women. Most adult women's voices do not include the lower register options that men's voices do. And that low register helps to convey a lot, too. In fact, The Fix wrote earlier this year about the relationship between male voices, lower tones and authority. There's interesting stuff there, so we suggest you check it out.
We aren't saying that this isn't in some way a manifestation of deep-seated sexism in American culture. In fact, it almost certainly is. But, the human brain is wired to respond to pacing. And, our culture takes care of the rest. That combination affects us all to some degree.
So, that's how most people will understand slow, low and even-toned speech at a visceral level.
Most writers can also attest to something similar. Varying the length of sentences and making accurate but creative use of punctuation can create some of the same effects on the page. Using colloquial speech and pop culture buzzwords sets a different kind of tone than a series of multi-syllabic and technical terms.
It turns out that in any form of communication — but certainly public speech — pacing, volume and tone matter. A. lot.