On Sunday, March 12, 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt gave a leadership lesson in persuasive communication when he delivered the first of what would come to be known as his “fireside chats.” In a radio address of less than 14 minutes he would influence the behavior of millions in order to help curb a national banking crisis.
He managed this accomplishment just eight days into his presidency because he did not lose sight of the fact that a position of authority alone is not enough when you need people to follow where you would like them to go. A leader must explain what is happening, why decisions have been made, and precisely how people can support a plan to reach a shared goal.
But it’s easy for leaders to forget that they have special access to people and information which inform their decision making and strategy development. Failure to share that vantage point is what dooms many attempts at persuasive communication.
Because people will remain unmoved by even the best strategy in the world if they don’t understand how it is supposed to work.
Here is what Roosevelt did, and what you can mimic in your own communication.
Beware the Curse of Knowledge
Once we know something, we forget what it’s like not to know it. That “curse of knowledge,” sometimes referred to as the “curse of expertise,” impedes communication. Because even though a leader may not feel like an expert in everything, they do have special access to the inside discussion behind decision making and strategy development. And we all have a cognitive bias where we often unknowingly assume that others have sufficient background knowledge to understand what we are about to say.
The truth, however, is that it is always best to present a primer on the background knowledge to support your message. That is exactly what Roosevelt did.
Before he explained the plan and how he wanted people to react, he explained the premise for the actions. He explained the fundamentals of the banking system, how the basic problem of the crisis emerged, and how and why the government came to the decisions necessary to resolve it. He then explained how people should react.
That may sound like a lot but keep in mind that the entire radio address was delivered in under 14 minutes.
Be Clear, Direct, and Conversational
Though this was a presidential address to the nation, Roosevelt did not create a fancy speech. He used simple and plain language to explain things directly to the American people.
Actually, the tone of the talk is more like he was speaking to one individual person rather than the millions who were listening. Key to achieving this tone was the anticipation of the basic questions anyone would have in such a personal conversation. After he explains banking basics, he poses the question “What, then, happened during the last few days of February and the first few days of March?” And then he answers it.
When he speaks about the plan to reopen banks, he again directly poses a follow up question, “A question you will ask is this – why are all the banks not to be reopened at the same time?” And then he answers it.
Be Specific About What You Want People to Do
If you want people to follow, you have to show them how. Roosevelt did not mince words when he explained that the grand plan does not work without public support. “The success of our whole great national program depends, of course, upon the cooperation of the public — on its intelligent support and use of a reliable system.”
He wanted them to trust the banks again. He assured people “that it is safer to keep your money in a reopened bank than under the mattress.” He explained that “We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system; it is up to you to support and make it work.”
At the same time, he did not overpromise. “I do not promise you that every bank will be reopened or that individual losses will not be suffered, but there will be no losses that possibly could be avoided; and there would have been more and greater losses had we continued to drift.” Because as he stated plainly, “We had a bad banking situation.”
The best way to garner support is to give people the straight truth and trust them to be intelligent and responsible enough to act accordingly. Telling them what you want them to do is important, but it only works if they are convinced it is the right action to take.
Much has changed in the last century, but the tenets of persuasive communication remain. If you want to lead people effectively, beware the curse of knowledge. Be clear, direct, and conversational in tone. And be specific about what exactly you want people to do.