Profiles of Great Communicators: Lincoln and Roosevelt
- Thursday, June 06, 2002
Lincoln teaches us to take your speech, not yourself, seriously.
Abraham Lincoln's best known speech, the Gettysburg address, took only a few moments to deliver. Yet in it Lincoln captured the spirit of the struggle and rallied people to the support of the Union.
Lincoln was not an accomplished speaker. Yet few politicians have ever established their reputation so quickly and thoroughly through speeches. In fact, some historians believe that Lincoln's meteoric rise from obscurity to power resulted from just a few key addresses.
First, Lincoln spoke against compromise with pro-slavery forces before the Illinois Republican State Convention in 1858: "A house divided against itself cannot stand."
More decisive speeches occurred during Lincoln's 1858 race for the U. S. Senate against Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln faltered at first, but he recovered and gained tremendous respect among the voters of Illinois.
Douglas ultimately won the election that year, but his response to Lincoln's arguments alienated the Southern states and, ironically, doomed his 1860 presidential bid against the very man he had defeated, Abraham Lincoln.
Another momentous speech took place in front of a New York abolition society. Lincoln told them, "Let us have faith that right makes might." His carefully reasoned arguments and self-effacing humor helped him gain support for the Republican nomination for the presidency.
Why do so few communicators today match Lincoln's persuasive power? Perhaps it is because they fail to organize for effective persuasion.
In each speech, Lincoln crafted the impression that he was worthy of being listened to not because of who he was, but because of the force of his arguments.
Lincoln often belittled his own abilities and conveyed the impression that he was open to reasonable persuasion. Such calm, open-minded deliberation was a needed antidote to the hot-headed, angry rhetoric of that period, and it wouldn't hurt to have more of it today as well!
Roosevelt teaches us this: Don't be afraid to persuade.
T.R., as he was known by a generation of Americans, lived every moment to its fullest. "I don't think any President ever enjoyed himself more than I did," he said.
Indeed, Teddy Roosevelt and his family brought a rough-and-tumble attitude to the White House. His manly exploits set a precedent that most presidents since that time have attempted to follow, that of being aggressive and active.
Yet Roosevelt is an unlikely choice when it comes to great communicators. He was animated and persuasive, but his high-pitched voice, nasal twang, and long-winded addresses could make his speeches tedious for the audience.
In spite of this, Roosevelt persevered over highly respected orators such as William Jennings Bryan, whom he defeated for the Presidency.
Roosevelt used the Presidency as a "bully pulpit" to initiate reforms ranging from a reduction of government debt to the building of the Panama Canal. In so doing, he gained the respect and admiration of a generation.
What allowed Teddy Roosevelt to get away with such a "preachy" style? Simply this: he knew the difference between being RESPECTED and being BELIEVED.
People felt that they knew the real Teddy Roosevelt, but the fact is that HE really understood THEM. He knew what people wanted in a president: honesty, consistency, tough-mindedness and fair-dealing.
When Roosevelt spoke, he cultivated the impression that he had the audience's best interests at heart. He could talk tough because people knew he was on their side. He willingly confronted what he considered to be bad ideas whether they were from friends or from foes.
Ultimately the perception that Roosevelt was willing to expend himself for a good cause helped him reach the heart of his audience.
On one occasion it paid for Roosevelt to be long-winded. As he stood to speak that day, he was shot by an assassin. Amazingly, the thick speech manuscript in his breast pocket slowed the bullet enough to save his life. Apologizing for his weakened state, Roosevelt proceeded to deliver his lengthy address as if nothing had happened, all the while with a bullet lodged in his chest.
Teddy Roosevelt demonstrates that it is the ability to reach the heart of the audience, not one's skill as a presenter, that makes for powerful communication.
Dr. Jeff Myers teaches communication and leadership at Bryan College. He directs The Summit Ministries Program at Bryan college, a two-week training program which helps Christian young people learn how to defend their Christian faith and develop outstanding leadership skills. He is the author of several books, including Playpen to Podium: How to Give Your Children the Communication Advantage in Every Area of Life. He has also produced several video-training series, including "The Secrets of Great Communicators."
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