Strong Language, Vol. 2: "The Ballot or the Bullet"

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."  "Big Brother is watching you."  "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?/A nation turns its lonely eyes to you."

Great writing is everywhere.  It's in the speeches that embolden us, the books that unsettle us, the songs that reveal us -- the language that changes us.

In this edition of Strong Language, we look at "The Ballot or the Bullet," a speech written and delivered by Malcolm X in 1964.  Malcolm was not what we commonly think of as an "educated" man -- to quote from his Autobiography, "I finished the 8th grade in Mason, Michigan.  My high school was the black ghetto of Roxbury, Massachusetts.  My college was in the streets of Harlem, and my master's was taken in prison" -- but this lack of formal schooling proved no detriment: he wielded words like finely-hewn blades, and his delivery of his ideas was as relentless as it was electrifying.

A link to the full text of the speech is provided above.  We'll be focusing on his use of 3 key communications techniques: the first two are structural; the third is conceptual.

  • Sink your hook early: you can do it with humor, you can do it with an anecdote, but however you do it, you must seize your audience's attention as early as you can and make each person understand why listening to you is the best possible use of his or her time.

Journalists do this with a strong lead paragraph; authors do it with a memorable opening phrase ("Call me Ishmael" is the classic example).  Malcolm does it twice in his first three sentences.  His speech opens with phrasing that's jarring on the ear: "Mr. Moderator, Brother Lomax, distinguished guests, friends and enemies."  The phrase is humorous and extraordinarily subtle: the laughing listener (who considers himself Malcolm's "friend") may not even consciously notice that he's being led to wonder who in the audience might be Malcolm's (and, by extension, his) "enemies," and if those enemies might make Malcolm hesitant to speak freely.

Malcolm puts those latter fears to rest when he states that he plans to discuss the future of the civil rights movement, which "in my little way of understanding it, points toward either the ballot or the bullet."  The listener understands (consciously or not) that those final five powerful and provocative words could only be spoken by a man who fears no enemy -- a man who should be listened to, because he is a man who is prepared, come what may, to speak the truth.

  • Repetition 2.0 (the power of alliteration): we discussed, in an earlier edition, the effectiveness of repetition, and Malcolm uses it frequently: "We're all in the same boat and we all are going to catch the same hell from the same man"; "In speaking like this, it doesn't mean that we're anti-white, but it does mean we're anti-exploitation, we're anti-degradation, we're anti-oppression."  The phrase he repeats the most often, however, is "the ballot or the bullet," and note, within this phrase, the internal repetition of the letter B: "the Ballot or the Bullet."

This particular use of alliteration, based around a hard consonant sound, has a rhythmic, percussive effect: it's a drumbeat, distinctive and driving, that catches a listener's attention and worms its way into his consciousness.  Alliteration adds depth and texture to your message and renders it highly memorable -- but even more than basic repetition, you must be cautious in how you use it: a brief and precisely-crafted phrase like "the ballot or the bullet" (or even, "it's a drumbeat, distinctive and driving") can be potent...but the line between them and "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers" is a thin one indeed.

  • Awaken your audience's emotions: there's a reason the phrase "winning hearts and minds" exists: fail to engage your audience intellectually, and you'll never be taken seriously -- fail to engage them emotionally, and you'll never reap the rewards of their passion.  The effective communicator must do both, and if the idea you have or the product you sell or the cause you represent is a compelling one, then your intellectual case almost makes itself.  Far more challenging is making a connection with your audience on the emotional level.

Malcolm does it by invoking shared struggle ("[Immigrants] that just got off the boat, they're already Americans.  As long as you and I have been over here, we're not Americans yet") and issuing barely-veiled calls to action ("You talk about a March on Washington in 1963, you haven't seen anything.  There's some more going down in '64...and this time they're not going singing 'We Shall Overcome.'  They're not going with white friends.  They're not going with placards already painted for them.  They're not going with round-trip tickets.  They're going with one-way tickets"), and all the while, his repetitions weave their way throughout the speech, led by the martial, alliterative drumbeat of his key phrase: "the ballot or the bullet."  As a performance, it is nearly symphonic in its scope -- and it reminds us that an audience is not just a group of faces in an auditorium or a collection of eyes scanning a webpage: they are human beings, and if you engage their emotions, you will hold their attention and their excitement in the palm of your hand.

That's all for this edition of Strong Language.  In our next installment, we join two monks who, on the trail of a murderer in a medieval abbey, offer a critical insight into how to speak not only to the audience you already have -- but to the audience you would like to reach.