Teaching executives the ancient art of persuasion

The events that led to publication of this article are unusual. In December 2013, I had hip-replacement surgery, which eventually gave me pain-free mobility again. But immediately after the operation, I was still laid up at home for several weeks. When something like this happens, you can only do your exercises and watch TV for so long. As severe boredom set in, I went rummaging among books on my shelf looking for something worthwhile to read. And I am happy to report that I found an absolute treasure that I unreservedly recommend to executives.

Over the years, I have written over 150 articles for Ivey Business Journal. The goal has always been to serve up practical advice for executives that can help them better do their jobs. This time out, my submission is certainly different than what I have published in the past. It is relatively short, but word for word, the recommended reading I am putting on the table might just be the single best bit of advice that I have ever offered to executives.

I very much believe in this article, which is about the value that can be gained from reading William Lewis Safire’s Lend Me your Ears: Great Speeches in History.

Safire book coverSafire (1929-2009), an American author and journalist, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1978, was perhaps best known as a syndicated political columnist for the New York Times. He isn’t the first writer to publish a book on notable speeches. There are many collections of history’s great speeches and any one of them would probably be helpful to executives. But Safire served as a presidential speechwriter for Richard Nixon and what makes his book stand out in the helpful department is his keen insights into the art of speech writing and why the ones he selected for his book are great speeches. Indeed, you can use his insights and selections to become a better executive.

A big part of being an executive is persuading people to commit to their part in the corporate plan. Shareholders must be convinced to commit to the stock. Lenders must commit to the loans and debt. Customers need to commit to the product. Employees and suppliers must commit to giving operations their best efforts.

To get this commitment from stakeholders, executives can deploy various weapons, including the power of their position, logic, charisma and incentives such as financial rewards, not to mention the old standbys—fear and threats. But, at the end of the day, when the goal is to persuade people, what an executive wants must be communicated. And the only tool to do this is words.

Language and its delivery is the core of persuasion. The better an executive is at using language, the more likely they will be at getting the desired behaviour. In other words, most roads to success go straight through the Queen’s English.

The ancient world clearly understood the power of rhetoric and oratory. The Greeks and Romans exalted the use of language and public speaking aimed at persuasion, raising it to an art form. The modern world should follow suit. When I went through high school with the Jesuits in the 1960s, a required course in their time-tested classics tradition was a combination of rhetoric and oratory called elocution. Alas, such courses have not generally survived, a casualty of modern education’s preoccupation with socialization, practicality, job skills and technology. I didn’t see it at the time, but I now realize those elocution classes deserved more than the essentially “waste of time” status we assigned them.

Permit me a short digression on rhetoric, which enables me to recommend another book to executives:  Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain. Stein tells the story of an aspiring race car driver as seen through the mind and words of his dog Enzo. It is a dog’s take on some of the great challenges of life, career and decision-making, and the book is just plain chock full of wisdom and charm. As Enzo explains, the fact he is mute gives him unusual and exceptional powers of observation and understanding. The book may sound more than a bit quirky, but it is highly engaging and thought provoking. Here is Enzo on rhetoric:  “Who is Achilles without his tendon?  Who is Samson without Delilah?  Who is Oedipus without his club foot? Mute by design, I have been able to study the art of rhetoric unfettered by ego and self-interest, and I know the answers to these questions.”

If they give Safire a read, executives will find rhetoric can supply answers to a lot of questions. Safire explicitly states his purpose: “Here we offer the meat and potatoes of oratory – oral communication in context, human persuasion in action.”

It is generally accepted that the following ancient Greek reference drives home the difference between good oratory and great oratory, “When Pericles speaks, the people say, ‘How well he speaks.’ But when Demosthenes speaks, the people say, ‘Let us march!'”

What executive does not aspire to the power of Demosthenes’ rhetoric? When a CEO speaks, they want shareholders to say, “Let us buy the stock,” and consumers to say, “Let us buy the product,” and employees to say, “Let us do our best.” Raising oratory skills to a higher level is value that you can find in Safire’s book. Keep in mind that, as Safire noted, Reagan’s delivery “could lift a bad speech up by the scruff of its neck, shake it, and make it sing. Contrariwise, the best-written speech can fall on its face if delivered poorly.”

In his book, Safire does three specific things. First he takes the reader through the great speeches of history, providing a commentary on each. You will be educated and entertained as you wind your way through the likes of Socrates, Pericles, Demosthenes, Cicero and Catiline of ancient Greece and Rome, then through Shakespeare, St. Francis, Cromwell, Luther, Washington, Jefferson, Gladstone, Disraeli, Lincoln and Napoleon to modern names like Twain, Lenin, Churchill, Gandhi, Stalin, Gehrig, Roosevelt, MacArthur, Patton, Kennedy, Nixon, both Bush presidents and Obama.  Safire also provides a never-given speech he wrote for President Nixon to deliver if Apollo 11 astronauts ended up marooned on the moon.

Second, Safire provides his ten steps to a great speech, beginning with shaking hands with your audience through shape, pulse, occasion, focus, phrase, purpose, theme, delivery and peroration.  He also offers a great piece of advice: practice what you are going to say.

Third, Safire takes you through the tricks of the persuasion-through-language trade: metaphor, maxim, allusion, parallel passages, narrative structure, contrasting words and images, parody, rhetorical questions, personal anecdotes, personification, anaphora, figures of speech, alliteration, change of pace, if clauses, direct address, asides, tone, simile, imagery, poetic language and contrapuntal turnaround.

The rhetorical scholar Kenneth Burke said, “You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his.”  That is Safire’s wheelhouse. Read Safire and take his advice and my guess is that you will be astonished at how much more effectively and quickly you persuade stakeholders to commit to your vision.

About the Author

John S. McCallum is Professor of Finance at the I. H. Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba, and former Chairman of Manitoba Hydro. Contact John.McCallum@umanitoba.ca.