We are, rightly and naturally enough, suspicious of politicians and their rhetoric. We believe them to use it as a means of befuddling us, obfuscating their true intentions. Not for nothing did former governor of New York state Mario Cuomo say that, “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose”.1
And yet the quality of that prose is vital because that is how arguments for change are won. Policy that is presented in dry, unengaging terms is unlikely to win support. Political language has to have a purpose, so that it changes minds and opens hearts.
So perhaps there is something to learn from three conviction politicians – purposeful politicians – and how they used their language to win people over to their views, ideals, their side.
The object is change
“People have forgotten about the personal society. And they say: do I count, do I matter? To which the short answer is, yes. And therefore, it isn't that I set out on economic policies; it's that I set out really to change the approach, and changing the economics is the means of changing that approach. If you change the approach you really are after the heart and soul of the nation. Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.” 2
Margaret Thatcher, when she uttered one of her most famous quotes, was two years into her premiership, and beset by economic and social crises – unemployment was spiking and riots were to come that summer. And yet here, as in her use of St Francis of Assissi on the steps of Downing Street in 1979 after her first election win, you can see her concern that if she was to achieve what she wanted to achieve, she and her government must be active.
That sounds tautologous – aren’t governments always active? Consider it for a moment though – bureaucracies (and larger organizations) often have a vested interest in stasis and things staying the same, resisting change. To overcome this, people must be stirred to become active (every bureaucracy is only a collection of people) and to understand that they are, willingly or not, on a journey to achieve something. Thatcher understood this very well.
See what I see
“But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun--almost as hot as it is here today--and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out--then we must be bold.” 3
One of John F Kennedy’s particular talents as a speaker was to paint a picture of a future that he wanted to see happen – he had what political consultants call ‘the vision thing’ or what we might term as being far-sighted.
Whether it was the notion that Berlin could be one day united, or that man could walk on the moon, he was expert at presenting this future and then asking his audiences to help him do this.4 Note in the quote from his Rice University speech the accretion of detail that makes this future tangible: the length of the football field, the alloys, the speeds. It’s this that gives the purpose credibility – and it’s a lesson that’s often forgotten. Bad seers waffle in abstract generalities; far-sighted ones are specific.
His dream was everyone’s dream
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” 5
Martin Luther King knew that the only way that his drive for civil rights would succeed was if he could persuade people to his cause: people from within the African-American community nervous of the pushback that would inevitably come; and white politicians who both saw the moral rightness of what he was saying, and the need for justice, and had the wherewithal – and power – to do something about it.
His way bringing people on to his side was to, effectively, make them participants in the drama, the story that he was telling. In the words of one commentator, King was able to make personal connections between his own story and what he wanted for his family, and show his audience that this desire was right for America too.6 His dream was participative: not just for his people, but all people.
The sweep of history
“Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
King was also able to show that his demands for change were not just morally right, but natural, because of his ability to place them within a historical context. As one analyst put it, “He regularly started with stories from the Old Testament and modern history to make the point that the people in his movement were part of the broad sweep of history.” 7
He is explicit in doing this at the beginning of the ‘I have a dream’ speech, referencing Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, before going on to show how progress had not been achieved since.
“One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
This placing of his purpose within a historical context allowed people to see that they had a role to play within a drama that could be considered limitless – because of its scope, and potential to change the country, and the world. And while that could be considered negative – justice is never done – it actually galvanizes people because, well, there is work to do.
The poetry of change
Naturally, it might feel a stretch, a presumption even, to think that your purpose statement should attempt to reach some of the declarative heights discussed here. But while you’re drafting it’s worth bearing those four rhetorical steers in mind; we certainly do, as they are Brandpie’s tests when we consider whether a purpose statement is not just doing its job, but has the potential to go beyond that – to start to change the world.
Take, for example, the purpose Brandpie developed for the international health NGO, Frontline AIDS:
We exist because the most marginalized people demand innovation to create a future free from AIDS.
How does it measure up against the four tests? Well, it is active in that it demands something of the organisation; it is far-sighted as it articulates a positive idea of what the world can be; it is participative as it is explicit in involving those marginalised by the disease; and it is limitless as, right now, the challenge is daunting – yet achievable.
The four tests act as a useful litmus test when developing a purpose statement, giving you permission to start to use language that is radical and radically different – and so more likely to drive change.
CEO Purpose Report 2020
For the second year in a row, we conducted the world's most comprehensive study exploring what today's CEO really thinks about purpose.Explore the full insights now