Communication lessons from FDR

I recently watched a show on the History Channel about the hours following the attack on Pearl Harbor, and was taken by how brilliantly President Franklin Roosevelt responded, particularly in the delivery of his legendary speech to Congress:  “Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy …”

With those words, the President began the most important remarks of his presidency, concluding with a request that Congress declare a state of war against Japan.

Interestingly, the speech, hailed as a success by historians, was an uphill battle for Mr. Roosevelt. His Cabinet unanimously panned the draft, arguing that it needed more details and background.

President Roosevelt, born 131 years ago next week, held firm, following two principles that hold true today:

The President wanted the speech to be short enough that everyone would listen in its entirety. He knew that even the best speech wouldn’t be effective if he lost his audience. Additionally, if you give too much information, you risk diluting your key points.The “Infamy Speech” was less than 4 minutes long.

Mr. Roosevelt felt the speech should be clear and understood by all. This was especially critical, given the huge number of immigrants the country had welcomed in recent decades. It was a call for action, simple and direct.

Congress declared war, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Sidebar: Trivia
Due to concerns about a possible assassination attempt, the FBI wanted the President to ride in a bulletproof car. The only one available — and the car that brought Mr. Roosevelt to Congress that day — had been seized from gangster Al Capone.


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