When Abraham Lincoln stepped to the podium to address a joint session of the US Congress on Dec. 3, 1861, he strongly took issue with those who sought to “destroy the Union.” He began this State of the Union address by expressing “great gratitude to God," and he used much of the balance of that celebrated speech to encourage the American people to stand by the founding principles of a young nation.
Lincoln was using this occasion, as his predecessors had as far back as President Washington in 1790, to present his vision and platform for both specific and general ways to address the issues facing the country at that time. Subsequent presidents have used this annual rite to consolidate support for current policies, present new legislative proposals, and offer sweeping new directions – during wartime and peace, domestic unrest and relative tranquility.
What is constant in all these speeches, especially now that they are broadcast throughout the world, is a desire to reach the hearts and minds of millions of listeners and to convince them of the value of a particular set of ideals and ideas. These speeches are really not unlike those given by biblical leaders such as Moses and King Hezekiah, who sought to unify and strengthen resolve against sometimes bitter odds, imploring God to visit His people. Jesus himself addressed large gatherings, actually thousands of people, often called “multitudes,” as well as speaking with individuals and small groups. The result of his addresses is recorded in the Gospels – that many people went away healed.
As with all of these orators throughout history, there is a hope that the statements put forth will have a positive effect. That brings us to the role of the listener and the unspoken, nonverbal role of communication. The value of communication, and specifically speeches of this type, is ultimately decided by the individual listener. It is the responsibility of the listener to sift through thousands of words and images, guard against mental manipulation, and discard or employ – if deemed motivating and inspiring – the concepts put forward.
The Founder of Christian Science was also an accomplished public speaker and appeared in public halls as well as on church platforms. A close examination of Mary Baker Eddy’s speeches reveals the use of admonitions, picturesque examples, and exhortations. But she, too, must have been mindful of the effect of words on the individual when she wrote: “When the heart speaks, however simple the words, its language is always acceptable to those who have hearts” (“Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” p. 262).
In my own work in both the political and private sectors, this view of effective communication has always been a humbling guide, as has been this arresting statement: “[Y]our example, more than words, makes morals for mankind” (“Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” p. 110). Here then would be an effective guide for the speechwriter, the speaker, and the listener: Write from the heart, deliver from your life, and listen with discernment.