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Politics Hillary Clinton has a lot to teach Canada’s politicians

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of CBC The National's "At Issue" panel and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He writes a weekly digital column for The Globe and Mail.

While her track record in politics has been impressive, there always seemed to me to be something lacking in Hillary Clinton's communications style.

In interviews, speech clips and ads I've watched over the years, the former first lady, secretary of state and senator from New York generally seemed to me more rehearsed and formulaic rather than genuine and interesting.

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This week, Ms. Clinton was in Ottawa, speaking at an audience assembled by the think tank Canada 2020. She delivered a prepared speech and then took questions from a moderator.

My takeaway?

Either I had been judging her too harshly in the past, or she's been getting a lot better. It was a masterful effort.

Her presentation was highly polished, but at the same time, charming and human.

Ms. Clinton has spent years with people evaluating her in the reflected light of her husband's achievements and failings. She's had to fend off so many deeply personal attacks; it would be easy to understand if she was fatigued with it all, aloof or detached.

Instead, she strolled the stage and held the attention of her audience with plenty of energy, empathy and focus. Entertainment value matters when it comes to political leadership, and Ms. Clinton knows how to deliver.

Her stagecraft was impressive, but not as impressive as the quality of her thinking and her ability to make a tough sell look pretty easy.

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She conveyed a deep knowledge about the state of the world today. She described the myriad current risks in a way that could have left people feeling more unsettled, but actually seemed to have the opposite effect: here was someone who saw not only threats, but opportunities, who grasped the big picture and wasn't losing their cool.

When it came to the coalition initiative in Iraq she was surprisingly candid – acknowledging the fact that it may not work and it may not be enough and we may be at it for a long time to come. She stressed the need to do something, together, and to know going in that combat alone will not solve this problem.

While that candour could have had the effect of undermining confidence in this military action, it actually had the opposite effect.

By acknowledging that reasonable people might have doubts about the planned military action in Iraq, she didn't give the counterargument fuel; instead she came across as more thoughtful, less like someone who was acting reflexively.

By under-selling the new coalition initiative, she subtly shifted the burden of the argument: maybe this military engagement won't work perfectly…but do those opposed have better, practical ideas about how to protect the public? You could feel the gaze of the room turning towards Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who happened to be in the room.

Her presentation could have been a master class for aspiring politicians, including those in Canada. She showed how a detailed speech on complex issues need not be boring, and that describing facts and walking people through your thought process is far more persuasive than belting out routine political clichés or painting partisan lines.

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Ms. Clinton was at her best when she put current conflicts in an historical, bigger and broader context.

She reminded her audience that when people in many parts of the world face threats, they don't pick up the phone and call the Kremlin or Beijing – they call on people in places like the U.S., Canada, Britain, people they can count on to do the right thing. It put Canada's day-to-day political skirmishing about tactics, cost and details of our modest engagement in a different, and useful light, without being overtly political.

The room was full of people who practice politics as their day job, partisans of the left, centre and right of the political spectrum. People who rarely find themselves nodding at the same moments, or applauding the same arguments. People who found themselves doing so on this occasion; a testament to the skills of this remarkable woman who may well become America's next president.

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