March 4, 2023 marks an important anniversary not just in the history of the nation and of the world, but of the power of effective communication. On that date 90 years previously, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn in as President of the United States. This was a crucial event because Roosevelt, taking office at the height of the Great Depression, amid mass bank failure, home and farm foreclosures and an unemployment rate of about 25%, went on to change the country – and later the world – in ways unprecedented since at least the aftermath of the Civil War. FDR’s reform program would include federal banking and stock market regulations, Social Security and unemployment insurance, and a transformation of expectations the people have of the government.
There’s plenty to say about all that and about FDR (both positive and negative), but my focus here isn’t on the presidency that was to come on March 4, 1933, but on the speech which Roosevelt gave signaling the course ahead, for it was one of the most powerful examples of how to communicate effectively in history. FDR was, among other things, a master of public relations. He made effective use of the still fairly new medium of radio, and was able to better temper his voice for it than most of his peers. And he was able to combine, in a way that eluded his hapless and reluctant predecessor Herbert Hoover, a sense of urgency and truthfulness with a sense of hope and optimism. The most famous line of the First Inaugural Address captures this perfectly:
But the “fear itself” line only works in the context of what else Roosevelt said. Had he tried to wave away the challenge and say the Great Depression was merely a crisis of business confidence that could be remedied easily, he would have sounded much like his defeated and widely despised predecessor. What he needed was for the people to trust him with unprecedented authority and to accept enormous change, and to play a full role in resolving the crisis with the president. That’s why the speech embodied three important lessons of how to communicate effectively that we use in our own profession, whether in composing written content, providing guidance to clients in media interviews or drafting the pitches that secure those interviews.
Establish a Sense of Urgency
FDR may have begun his First Inaugural Address with reassurance that, ultimately, things would be ok. But he also didn’t shrink from the country’s challenges in March 1933:
“Values have shrunken to fantastic levels; taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone.”
Sounds grim and deflating, but setting up the problem is key to introducing the solution. In our own work, we have clients who work in many areas of business and society where challenges abound. That means identifying and explaining need – whether for a more sustainable economy, for more helpful technology or for a new approach to leadership – is key to our job.
After discussing the economic collapse the country was undergoing, Roosevelt offered several policy remedies. This established that while we need only fear “fear itself,” actual recovery would be tied to action and specific solutions. In communicating on behalf of clients, we can never set up a problem and then be vague about how to solve it. A clear strategy for tackling the challenge is what will garner attention. We advise clients to go into any interview with a similar multi-step plan and call to action. As important as establishing the problem is, the news is full of problems. What really stands out are the ways to fix them – and a bold confidence that they can be fixed.
Storytelling is at the Core of How to Communicate Effectively
Finally, the core lesson of Roosevelt’s successful speech is that even the most rational people are mobilized less by facts and figures – crucial as these are – but by emotion and narrative. The framing of the speech – from asserting we have nothing to fear and we will endure, to blaming the actions of those whom FDR called “the money changers” who have now “fled from their high place in the temple of our civilization,” to calling for concerted action and promising a new order of things – was a gripping, emotional story from start to finish.
In our line of work, we’re often dealing with complex research topics and business insights, and with reporters who are looking for cold, hard data. It’s easy to forget about emotion or think it’s unimportant. But it’s human nature to look for drama and hope, and reporters are ultimately catering to an audience that seeks these things as well. That’s why storytelling is at the core of everything we do. That means injecting the problem and the proposed solution with urgency, flair and promise for the future. This is why when we begin work with a new client, our first question is “what is your story?,” followed by asking ourselves “how do we best tell it?” But the most relevant takeaway from the “Fear Itself” speech for communications professionals is the value of what we do. Had Roosevelt not made a persuasive and effective case, his presidency could have flopped. Other great figures from history, such as Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr., also knew the value of communication in overcoming disagreement or resistance. The importance of our craft was affirmed 90 years ago as effective communication helped change the world. Let’s hope we can help change the world for the better in our time.