What Business Leaders Can Learn from Rhetorical Techniques Used in High-Stakes Political Speeches
1/10/23 – – In the wee hours of Saturday morning, the U.S. House of Representatives elected a new Speaker of the House. Finally. Cable TV viewers interested enough to stay up well past midnight to learn the outcome of the 15th ballot were treated to plenty of suspense and two contrasting speeches worthy of review.
Consistent with tradition, immediately following the definitive vote, the leader of the opposition party, Democrat Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn, New York, introduced and handed the gavel to the newly elected Speaker, Republican Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, California. Each delivered remarks and then the longest-serving member of the House, Hal Rogers, Republican from Kentucky (he’s been there since 1981), swore in McCarthy, who in turn swore in “en masse” all House members of the 118th Congress.
Protocol and history call for “brief remarks” by the two party leaders. Out of respect for the moment, expressed sentiments are expected to be conciliatory. So much for expectations. Confirming the poisonous political environment in Washington, neither presenter’s comments were particularly short or friendly. Jeffries delivered a combative political stump speech earning praise from Democrats and left-leaning media. McCarthy laid out an agenda focused on blocking and reversing the priorities of the Biden administration, which delighted Republicans and right-leaning media.
I’ll leave the debate over the appropriateness of the two speeches to political pundits. What I’d like to zero in on is the use of imagery and storytelling in the addresses. Executives called upon to make powerful speeches and persuasive presentations can improve their rhetorical skills by going to school on the efforts of others, especially leaders communicating in high-pressure situations.
Jeffries and McCarthy, in their most gentlemanly moments, promised to do their best to find common ground. Both pledged to work together for the good of the American people. Interestingly, they each introduced the imagery of a boat full of people from diverse backgrounds to communicate their openness to cooperation.
Jeffries offered this Martin Luther King Jr. quote often repeated to him and others in Congress by iconic civil rights leader and long-time Congressman John Lewis:
“We may have come over in different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.”
The imagery, contrasting the stark differences in the arrival on our shores of free immigrants vs. enslaved people, drew applause from both sides of the aisle. But Jeffries left it there, not building upon his relationship with Lewis or examining the ramifications of the different historic starting points for Americans. I think that was a missed opportunity.
McCarthy also used the imagery of a boat to drive home his pledge of unity. He referenced a painting familiar to most Americans of George Washington crossing the Delaware. Inviting the Representatives to visit his office and his conference room where a reproduction of the painting hangs, he did a masterful job of blending imagery and storytelling:
“You all know the story. It happened on Christmas 1776. There was no iPhone to take a picture. People wonder where it was painted. It wasn’t painted by someone who was there. It was painted in 1850 and 1851. It was an immigrant who lived in America, Emanuel Leutze. You know why he painted it? Because he knew that America was more than a country. America was an idea. He went home to Germany, and he wanted Germany to have a revolution based upon the values and freedoms that we defend every day. His talent was art. So, he believed that if he painted this painting, he could inspire his countrymen to rise up for the idea of freedom.
“Now, many historians will tell you he didn’t get it correct. They’ll tell you Washington crossed in a Durham boat. But he paints it with Washington in a row boat. You see 13 people, but only 12 faces. You see Washington standing up in a row boat in the middle of winter wearing a ceremonial uniform with his hand on his chest. He looks so stoic. You would look at this man and say, I’d follow him anywhere. You’d probably believe that he never lost a battle. But history will tell us that at that moment, at that time, he’d only lost. We had never won. You see, that was the night of our first victory as a nation when we surprised the Hessians.
“But when you look at the painting, don’t look at Washington. I want you to look at who’s in the boat. You see the second rower in the beret is Scottish. The person directly across from him in the green, rowing in the exact same cadence is an African American. You come down right to the middle in the red, the person who is rowing the strongest is a woman. And in the very back, is a Native American.
“I don’t know from an historic fact if they were in the boat that night. But this young immigrant who had lived in America . . . that’s who he believed would be in the boat.
“The second to last person is a farmer. He could be from Bakersfield, not sure. His hand goes across his face. People debate this part, but what I see is a hand of the 13th person nobody sees. You see, what I believe Emanuel is saying is, here we are, battling for the creation of the idea of freedom. That every individual is equal. Not a perfect nation, but striving to be a more perfect union. Having lost every battle against the strongest nation, having lost them all, but willing to do it on our holiest of nights with a hand reached out and asking if you would join us.
“That’s as true today as it was then. If we let everybody in the boat, if we row in the same cadence together, there is no obstacle this body can’t overcome for this nation.”
Jeffries and McCarthy have very different styles and were in different positions on Saturday morning. They were both moving and entertaining. But I believe the most memorable message delivered to the House and the American people was McCarthy’s story of how Leutze’s painting captures the promise of our country and inspires his public service.
The lesson for business leaders: Powerful imagery coupled with effective storytelling turns a routine speech into a tour de force, no matter how tired your audience may be.