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Lessons from Great Communicators

One reason I love history is that it allows you to learn from the best. History offers many examples of great communicators, but these four particular leaders are touchstones for me. Consider what impetus they can provide for you in your quest to communicate effectively:

  1.  Martin Luther King had passion, faith, and selfless dedication to the greater good.

His “I Have a Dream” speech, which he delivered in 1963, is considered by many to be one of the greatest speeches of all time. Martin Luther King had many characteristics of a great communicator, but in particular he could paint a picture with his words. This is tremendously effective, because people think in pictures for the most part. So when someone tells us a story or gives us an example, we grasp the point and can more easily retain the concepts.


If you ever feel tempted to spend more time on your slides than you do on your speech, remember that one of the most inspiring and memorable speeches ever was delivered without any PowerPoint slides. Be careful not to get hung up on the latest technology and instead use your words to paint pictures.


  1. Abraham Lincoln’s notable qualities include honesty, integrity, an ability to compromise and work the system to accomplish what needed to be done, and tenacity to stick to the objective.


His speeches are a great reminder that there is power in brevity. The Gettysburg Address, which he delivered in 1863, is one of the greatest speeches in American history and under five minutes long. Incidentally, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was only seventeen minutes. Sometimes fewer words say more.


  1. Mother Teresa was one of the greatest humanitarians of the twentieth century; her empathy and commitment to help impoverished people continues to inspire others.


Mother Theresa reveals a different side of being a great communicator, and that is the ability to communicate through actions. At the time of her death her Missionaries of Charity organization had over four thousand employees plus thousands of volunteers in 123 countries and all seven continents. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “What we are speaks louder than what we say.” What are your actions communicating?


  1. Ronald Reagan is often referred to as the great communicator. Putting politics aside, we can probably agree about why he is considered to be a master of communication.


One of Reagan’s key attributes was his optimism, and optimism inspires actions. When he took office, the United States as a country was down. There was double-digit inflation and high interest rates. When he left office, inflation was under 5 percent, unemployment was at its lowest in years, and there had been six straight years of economic prosperity.


Early in his presidency Reagan remarked, “What I would like to do is go down in history as the president who made Americans believe in themselves again.” Isn’t that a great vision for all of us—to be the kind of communicator who makes others believe in themselves and (I would add) helps others achieve what they did not even know was possible for them to achieve?

  These great communicators have much to teach us. Hopefully Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, and Ronald Reagan can help pave the way for us all to be the great communicators we all have the capability of being. Do some research, and read (or listen to) their speeches. It pays to learn from the best.

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