[March 12, 2020] Rudyard Kipling once said that words are the most powerful drug used by mankind. He was talking about how communication is the peak human achievement, and our use of it is unimaginably powerful. Many decades ago, beginning in the Great Depression, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt used the new radio medium to connect to millions of Americans. We know them today as fireside chats.
On this date, March 12, 1933, and eight days after his inauguration, President Roosevelt (or FDR for short) gave his first national radio address.1 Called fireside chats, FDR began them with the phrase, “I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States.” His first fireside chat was about banking and his explanation of his recent decision to close the nation’s banks to stop a surge in mass withdrawals by panicked investors.
At the time of this first radio announcement, the U.S. was at the lowest point of the Great Depression, with nearly a third of the workforce unemployed. FDR used the fireside chats as a method to ease fears and to inspire confidence in his leadership. He delivered more than 30 of these broadcasts between March 1933 and June 1944. His broadcasts reached nearly 90 percent of American households that owned a radio.
Broadcast journalist Robert Trout coined the phrase “fireside chat” to describe Roosevelt’s radio addresses. By doing so, it invoked an image of the president sitting by a fire in a living room, speaking earnestly to the American people.2 FDR took great care to make sure each address was accessible and understandable to ordinary Americans. He did this regardless of their level of education. He used folksy anecdotes to explain the often complex issues facing the country. Current U.S. President Trump uses Twitter to do something similar to get his message across.
FDR strove for unequivocal clarity in what he was trying to say. When leaders speak and take action, it is done in a clear, concise, and vigorous manner. There is no room to be misunderstood or for distorting what is said. While lessons from FDR’s fireside chats may be obvious, being unequivocally clear can be difficult. A good leader is focused, ethically grounded, and possess a good understanding of human psychology.
Nothing is more important to humans than the spoken word. When leaders talk, people listen, and only by the speaking can a leader do those things required. The spoken word is like the oil that lubricates a machine; it allows the entire mechanism to function correctly… like the organizations in which people work. And, from the unity of communications, comes increased morale and esprit de corps – the knowledge humans have that tells them they are not alone and supported by others.