Thursday, February 9, 2012

Historical Speeches Provide Lessons For Today's Attorneys and Law Students

This post on by Michael P. Maslanka: “5 Lesser-Known Speeches Hold Lessons for GCs” provides some interesting advice for corporate counsel, but arguably useful for all lawyers and law students.

The speeches include:

“1. Winston Churchill eulogizing Neville Chamberlain (London, 1940)… Today's heroes are tomorrow's goats; today's goats are tomorrow's heroes. Churchill's message: Never gloat, always be magnanimous….Churchill implored listeners to act with character, advised them to be decent and taught them to be gracious. Lawyers fear doing so, worrying they will look foolish, appear weak, be exploited. But Churchill took the long view, and so should attorneys.

2. Hubert Humphrey speaking for civil rights (Philadelphia, 1948)… Here is a first-rate call-to-action speech: Hubert Humphrey, then mayor of Minneapolis, spoke to the Democratic convention and pleaded for inclusion of civil rights in the platform.

The speech had four key elements. He identified the problem ("vicious discrimination"). He told the delegates what he wanted them to do ("state clearly and without qualification" that the party supported civil rights for African-Americans). He explained why this was important ("to get out of the shadow of states' rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights"). And he dealt directly with objections ("To those who say that we are rushing the issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years late")….

3. President John F. Kennedy advocating for space funding (Houston, 1962)… The United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a race to the moon. Kennedy spoke at Rice University, a center of engineering excellence. His job: to persuade the nation to invest the dollars it would take to win the race. He did, but how? His speech was a model of persuasion against resistance….

Want to motivate? Be vivid and detailed. Need to focus others? Provide a specific goal with a deadline to achieve it. Seek common ground? Speak to the best in each person in the legal department and the company.

4. George Washington addressing his officers (Newburgh, N.Y., 1783)…. America had won the Revolutionary War, but the officers who had served with Washington had not been paid. They were in a rebellious mood and met in Newburgh to discuss possible military action against Congress. Hearing of the meeting, Washington strode in unannounced and gave a speech.

It was factually correct, and it flopped. He then reached into his pocket to retrieve and read a letter from a congressman on why the officers couldn't be paid. But he also pulled out reading glasses, which few in attendance knew he used. "Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in your service." (Accounts of exactly what Washington said differ, but this version comes from "American Crisis: George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years After Yorktown, 1781-1783.")

Seeing their leader show this vulnerability, evoking their long period of hardship, created a wellspring of emotion and loyalty in the men. The incipient rebellion was snuffed out. Lesson No. 1: The GC should not hesitate to act like a quarterback and call an audible, changing the play — his message or style — at the line of scrimmage when the initial plan doesn't work. Lesson No. 2: Facts don't move people; emotions do.

5. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., addressing economic rights (Memphis, Tenn., 1968)… Emotion works, but only if the speaker tethers it to a rhetorical structure. So, here is what King did. He picked one line — "we are tired" — did an extended riff on it and closed with it. He tied that one sentence to vivid examples: "tired of our children having to attend overcrowded, inferior, quality-less schools"; "tired of being emasculated" so that a man's wife "must work in the white lady's kitchen"; "tired of smothering in an airtight cage of poverty." His repeated use of being "tired" created parallelism that drew in listeners and linked them to the situation, engendering hunger for change.”

I agree with Mr. Maslanka about why these speeches resonate – “Each speaker spoke directly from the heart. That's what makes them works of art, yesterday and today.”


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