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POETRY, POWER, AND MOONSHOTS
We have it in our power to begin the world over again.
Alexander was a slightly built man with a grand plan.
He seemed younger than his 19 years as he climbed onto the platform and looked out at his audience of farmers and merchants, many of whom viewed him with a mix of skepticism and contempt. He would need to combine his passion and skills to build his case to a sharply divided audience. One-third of his listeners that day agreed with his opinion. The other two-thirds strongly disagreed or felt neutral about the subject. Alexander faltered at first. But as his confidence built, his rhetoric soared. He was an avid reader who loved poetry. He was known to have a “facility with words” that freed him from his humble birth and placed him among the giants of the time. On this day, his powers of persuasion allowed him to convert a largely hostile audience.
Alexander Hamilton’s speech took place on July 6, 1774. He had taken a break from his college classes to argue for a boycott against British goods. “When his speech ended, the crowd stood transfixed in silence, staring at this spellbinding young orator before erupting in a sustained ovation.”1 Hamilton, whose spirit Lin-Manuel Miranda would resurrect 240 years later, “commanded attention with the force and fervor of his words.” According to historian Ron Chernow, “no other articulated such a clear and prescient vision of America’s future.”2 Hamilton’s gift was to combine words and ideas to stir people’s imagination.
Hamilton, along with Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Samuel Adams, and other gifted writers and speakers of the American Revolution, were influenced by the poets and philosophers who gave rise to the Enlightenment. The “trinity” of Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke taught America’s founders to wrap their ideas in the radical rhetoric of rebellion. By doing so, they unleashed a wave of free ideas that built upon one another to usher in the greatest period of progress civilization has ever seen.
In 1835, the French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville observed that “Every American is eaten up with longing to rise.” One of these Americans was a young man born to a poor family in a log cabin. Abraham Lincoln studied the words of the founders, which he would later invoke in the Gettysburg Address, a speech that would remake the country. According to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lincoln was a gifted storyteller who articulated his vision of a free society with contagious emotion. Lincoln’s communication skills transformed a self-described “prairie-lawyer” into one of the greatest presidents of U.S. history. The ideas that shaped America didn’t advocate for themselves.
Ideas built the modern world and it’s the power of ideas that will build the world of tomorrow. But ideas in the absence of eloquence will fall on deaf ears.
One hundred and eighty-five years after poets and writers, orators and leaders ignited the flame of freedom, another son of Boston ignited the spirit of adventure. Robert Frost wrote that John F. Kennedy’s election heralded “a golden age of poetry and power.” Frost was right. In the speeches that Kennedy delivered to inspire the country to build a moon program, Kennedy translated his ideas into language that fueled one of the greatest achievements in human history. Recently scholars have identified some of his most effective rhetorical techniques.
I’m Not Mopping Floors; I’m Putting a Man on the Moon
Charlie Mars couldn’t wait to get up and get back to work each morning. He’d graduated from Vanderbilt University with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. Five years later he joined NASA as a project engineer. Though he would never set foot on the moon, or travel in a rocket, or enjoy a ticker tape parade, years later, Mars spoke about the experience with the awe of someone who had done all three. “One of the things we had in common was a goal. We’re going to the moon. We’re putting a man on the moon! It so captured our imagination, and our emotion,” Mars recalled.3
Wharton management professor Andrew Carton stumbled upon Mars’s story as he pored over 18,000 pages of documents, transcripts, and internal NASA memos from the Apollo program, America’s ambitious initiative, begun in 1961, to put a man on the moon. Carton noted a common thread among the writings of Mars and the other NASA employees across all functions—accountants and administrators, clerks and engineers. They’d all been profoundly inspired by the words of one man: John F. Kennedy.
When Neil Armstrong took one giant leap for mankind on July 20, 1969, it was the final step of a process that began when one leader with a bold idea lit the collective imagination of the 400,000 people who could turn it into reality. Carton identified the rhetorical formula behind Kennedy’s successful communication and explained how his speaking skills triggered massive action.
First, “Kennedy reduced the number of NASA’s aspirations to one.”4 When NASA was established in 1958, it had several objectives, among them to establish superior space technology, to achieve preeminence in space, and to advance science. Kennedy chose to focus on the single goal of sending humans to the moon and returning them safely to Earth. It’s easier to rally a team around one common goal than to divide their attention.
Second, “Kennedy shifted attention from NASA’s ultimate aspiration to a concrete objective.” In other words, Kennedy took the abstract (advancing science by exploring the solar system) and made it tangible. On May 25, 1961, Kennedy told the U.S. Congress: “This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” Kennedy articulated a concrete goal and attached a specific deadline to it.
Third, “Kennedy communicated milestones that connected employees’ day-to-day work with concrete objectives.” Kennedy outlined three programs and three objectives: The Mercury program would send an astronaut into orbit; Gemini would teach NASA what it didn’t know about space walks and connecting two spacecrafts together; and Apollo would ultimately put a man on the moon. As you’ll learn later, the “rule of three” is a powerful communication technique that superstar persuaders use to mobilize their listeners.
Fourth, “Kennedy emphasized the impressive scale of the objective with metaphors, analogies and unique figures of speech.” Kennedy relied on a rarely used technique that linguists call “embodied concept.” It binds a concrete event (landing on the moon) with an abstract aspiration (advancing science). The abstract and concrete become one and the same. For example, in a speech at Rice University in 1962, Kennedy said, “Space is there and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there.” Kennedy gave abstract ideals like knowledge, peace, and exploration a real location.
The four steps proved to be irresistibly persuasive. Kennedy’s “soft” skill led to one of the greatest achievements in the history of humanity. His words gave NASA employees a stronger connection between their work and the ultimate goal. They no longer saw their work as an isolated series of tasks like mopping the floors or building electrical circuits. Instead, they viewed their work as a critical component of putting a man on the moon, advancing science, and changing the world as we know it. “In this way, Kennedy positioned employees to experience greater meaningfulness from their work by changing the meaning of work,” says Carton.
In the early 1960s, skeptics outnumbered those who believed a person could set foot on the moon by the end of the decade. Kennedy didn’t persuade people with facts alone; he made them feel. He combined what Aristotle called Pathos and Logos: emotion and logic. Kennedy’s words achieved emotional transcendence, making people believe that the impossible was possible. Skeptics became believers and believers became evangelists.
“It’s important to remember what made the moonshot the moonshot,” says Bill Gates.5 “A moonshot challenge requires a clear, measurable objective that captures the imagination of the nation and fundamentally changes how we view what’s possible … When we do that, we chart a course for a future that is safer, healthier, and stronger.”
Kennedy Inspires a Tech Maverick
A 16-year-old Israeli boy read the text of Kennedy’s Rice University “moon speech” in 1962. Seven years later, the boy, now in his earlier twenties, watched along with a billion other television viewers as Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the lunar surface. Kennedy’s bold vision left a lasting impression on the boy, Eli Harari, inspiring him to pursue a lifelong passion in the physical sciences.
One month after Kennedy’s vision was fulfilled, Harari arrived at Princeton University to begin his Ph.D. in aerospace and material sciences. It would lead to a career in tech; Harari would later start SanDisk, pioneering the technology that stores your digital photos. SanDisk’s flash memory products are in your iPad, digital music player, smartphone, computer, laptop, and in the cloud where you send or retrieve files.
At the time that Harari started SanDisk in 1988, mobile phones were the size of bricks. Digital cameras were clunky and expensive. Laptop computers were in their infancy, “as luggable as a one-year-old child, and about as cooperative,” as Harari put it. Digital music players, the worldwide web, phone apps, and cloud services were all in the future. So when Harari developed SanDisk, his potential investors told him he’d found the solution for a problem that didn’t exist. Harari’s hero was John F. Kennedy and he realized that, like Kennedy, he had to convince the skeptics. He had to bridge the chasm between his vision and what his audiences thought possible.
I first met Harari in 2008. The company was facing an existential crisis. The global financial meltdown had triggered the worst recession since the 1930s. As demand for flash-enabled consumer products plummeted, the industry faced a massive oversupply problem. Prices tanked, as did SanDisk’s stock, which plunged 90 percent over the course of a year.
In August 2008, a competitor, Samsung, launched an unsolicited bid to purchase Sandisk for a 50 percent premium, or $10 billion. Mutual fund managers who owned a large percentage of stock pressed Harari to make the deal. But Harari believed the offer wasn’t in the best interest of the company’s shareholders, partners, and customers. When he turned down the offer of $26 a share, a popular television business personality put a picture of Harari on a “wall of shame” for rejecting the sale. “They don’t understand our story,”6 Harari told me at the time. Together we created a narrative that clearly explained Harari’s vision and the long-term value of fighting for independence. Harari’s story focused on the experience of the team, which had successfully weathered downturns in the past; its superb technology; SanDisk’s exclusive patents; and its $2.5 billion cash position, which it had built up in the good times.
Although SanDisk’s stock dropped precipitously to $6 a share, I never saw Harari panic. Optimism, he said, is a powerful weapon in times of crisis. Harari also understood the power of a story, simply told. In one notable meeting I attended, a group of executives and engineers were preparing for a major presentation to financial analysts. Although they had a lot of detail to cover, I suggested that they articulate one overarching and specific theme, just as John F. Kennedy had done. Many in the room pushed back. They argued that their story was too complicated to condense into a sentence. Harari, however, spoke up and said, “Nobody understands that Flash has reached an inflection point. Flash will be bigger than our critics can possibly imagine.” I suggested that his statement become the rallying cry throughout the presentation. The first financial article to post after the analyst conference carried this headline: “Flash will be bigger than you think.”
Flash forward seven years, to October 21, 2015, when Western Digital made an offer to buy SanDisk. This time, the company accepted. The price? More than $86.50 a share, or more than triple Samsung’s original offer. SanDisk was sold for $19 billion. Eli Harari is a tech maverick, a leader who pursues ideas considered rebellious or disruptive. Mavericks often stand apart from the majority, which is why they must be persuasive if they hope to achieve tremendous things.
Let’s return to the American Revolutionary period. The story of America is the story of persuasion. In January 1776, Thomas Paine published a pamphlet called Common Sense to persuade colonists to fight for America’s independence. Paine had a gift, an ability to take sophisticated political arguments and make them accessible to the average reader at the time—farmers, merchants, and artisans.
Since many of the colonists could not read, they listened to the pamphlet being read out loud on street corners and in halls. George Washington even had the pamphlet read to his troops to lift their morale. Paine understood this and wrote for the ear, making the argument easy to follow and exciting to hear. Common Sense got its stirring rhythm from common techniques used by great persuaders. Among them:
Antithesis (juxtaposing two contrasting ideas): “Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even its best state, is a necessary evil.”
Anaphora (repetition of the same word or words in successive sentences or within clauses): “Tis not the affair of a city, a country, a province, or a kingdom, but of a continent. Tis not…”
Alliteration (the repetition of similar letter sounds in two or more words in a group): “By referring the matter from argument to arms, a new area for politics is struck; a new method of thinking hath arisen.”
Parallelism (several parts of a sentence are expressed in a similar way to show the ideas are equally important, adding balance and rhythm to a speech): “I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense.”
By framing the argument within a grand purpose—“The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind”—Paine elevated his writing from simple prose to a rallying cry for freedom. Paine’s mastery of persuasive principles would help trigger the revolution and inspire independence movements around the world for years to come. When Paine wrote, “The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth,” it changed what people thought was possible. For the first time in human history people who were not kings and monarchs began to think that they could govern themselves and secure their freedom against stronger, larger, wealthier armies. In much the same way, Kennedy’s rhetoric persuaded people to do what they never imagined possible. And Harari, inspired by Kennedy’s vision, created his own moonshot and stuck to his guns when his independence was threatened.
The world we live in today was not built brick by brick but idea on idea. In the next chapter you’ll learn why these ideas have unleashed the greatest period of abundance the world has ever known and why the ability to communicate ideas persuasively is more valuable now than ever.
“A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on,” John F. Kennedy once said. Your ideas deserve to live on. Let’s make sure they do.
Copyright © 2018 by Carmine Gallo