Abraham Lincoln said, “Determine that the thing can and shall be done, and then we shall find the way.” Great leaders have great vision for a better world, a better community, or a better business. Those who succeed in “finding the way” are often those who best articulate those visions. They shape people’s attitudes and inspire action with well-crafted messages and memorable, meaningful words. Some draft their own. Others rely on expert help. All recognize and utilize the power of rhetoric—the power of words.
In his inaugural address in 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt faced a nation decimated by the Great Depression. He began his remarks and rallied people’s spirits and resolve with his now-famous comments: “So first of all let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
In 1940, when his nation was on the brink of war, the new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, stood before the House of Commons and united the bickering factions with these memorable words: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and suffering. You ask, ‘What is our policy?’ I will say: ‘It is to wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us.’”
In 1963, as he stood before the thousands of angry marchers at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., Martin Luther King read the speech he had written in longhand the night before: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.’…I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character, I have a dream today.”
We may not be responsible for changing the course of a nation. But depending on our organization’s purpose, we may be saving jobs or saving lives. The right words, memorable words, do make a difference at work.
Yet, we often squander this awesome opportunity. As our ability to send messages increases, the quality of messages decreases. Just because we’re now skilled in “getting the word out,” doesn’t mean anyone is listening. Brian MacArthur, editor of The Penguin Book of Twentieth Century Speeches, contends we fail because “we as a nation no longer learn the rhythms of public utterance from Shakespeare and the Bible. When young Lincoln was sprawled in front of the fireplace reading Julius Caesar—‘The abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins remorse from power’—he was, unconsciously, learning to be a poet.”
I contend business leaders today would enhance their leadership skills if they enhanced their communications. So much time is spent in teams developing operating principles, strategic plans, and other very important documents describing the beliefs, direction, or potential of organizations. The missions are worthy. The visions are admirable. The employees are asked to spend the days and years of their lives working to achieve them; yet too often the words are ordinary, the communication is routine, the commitment is half-hearted, and the result is less than it might have been. The right words could make a powerful difference.
By the way, F.D.R. reportedly had as many as four speechwriters working to craft and polish his messages during his years as president. Reagan relied on Peggy Noonan and others to put words around his ideas. Some leaders are gifted as writers and some find writers to help them. Are the ideas polished by others still those of the leaders? I contend they are. It’s common to seek legal and financial expertise. I also contend it’s common sense to view language and rhetoric as professional skills you need to acquire one way or another. IBI