The appeal of hope and optimism in communications

In a recent post, The Ten Rules of Effective Language (from the book Words that Work by Frank Luntz), I wrote about the importance of speaking aspirationally (rule #7). The most important take-away of that section was that messages need to say what people want to hear. Note that this shouldn’t be interpreted as a synonym for coddling the audience or being a “yes man” or “yes woman”; rather, the meaning is to communicate with a message of positivity, about what can be achieved, about what the future can bring, etc.

Later in the book, in a chapter called “What We REALLY Care About”, Luntz focuses again on the importance of positive messages. Maybe it’s because today was the warmest day of the year so far, and the sun shone powerfully to help drive winter away, but I felt like sharing this message.

If you’re an optimist, then you’re in good company – many great contemporary leaders¹ identify as the same:

  • Martin Luther King Jr.: “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”
  • Winston Churchill: “I am an optimist. It does not seem much use to be anything else.”
  • Harry Truman: “A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties.”
  • Dwight Eisenhower: “Pessimism never won any battle.”
  • Robert Kennedy: “All of us might wish at times that we lived in a more tranquil world, but we don’t. And if our times are difficult and perplexing, so are they challenging and filled with opportunity.”
  • Ronald Reagan: “There are no great limits to growth because there are no limits of human intelligence, imagination, and wonder.”
  • Franklin Roosevelt: “The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith.”
  • John McCain: “We are taught to understand, correctly, that courage is not the absence of fear, but the capacity for action despite our fears.”
  • Margaret Thatcher: “I am in politics because of the struggle between good and evil. I believe that in the end good will triumph.”

(all quotes above are reproduced from p220-221 of Words that Work)

Luntz follows up those quotes by providing many examples of leaders who have succeeded with aspirational messages and those who’ve failed when they’ve taken on negative or defeatist tones. Again, that shouldn’t be interpreted as not speaking truth to an audience, but there’s a difference between saying “we’re screwed” and “things might look bad now, but we can turn them around together”.

To close off the section, Luntz tells us about a speech delivered by Robert F. Kennedy. Here’s his introduction:

On April 4, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy delivered what was probably the best unscripted political speech of the modern era. Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated earlier in the evening, and it was left to Kennedy to deliver the horrible news to a mostly black audience in Indianapolis, Indiana. While his many well-crafted speeches have been overshadowed by the man he eulogized that night and by his brother the president, this impromptu address represents aspirational language at its very best because it was delivered from the heart, without notes, rather than from some scribe’s pen.

And the speech, in full²:

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I’m only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening, because I have some — some very sad news for all of you — Could you lower those signs, please? — I have some very sad news for all of you, and, I think, sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world; and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black — considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible — you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization — black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with — be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

But we have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times.

My favorite poem, my — my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King — yeah, it’s true — but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love — a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.

We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past, but we — and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it’s not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

And let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.

Thank you very much.

You can listen to the audio and watch the video here, and I recommend you do so (I got the chills).

Powerful stuff.

===

¹Insert my usual disclaimers about not needing to agree with one’s politics to recognize effectiveness as a leader

²It’s printed in full in the book, but I grabbed the text from American Rhetoric because copying and pasting was easer than typing…hooray for the Internet!

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One comment on “The appeal of hope and optimism in communications
  1. […] The appeal of hope and optimism in communications […]

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