Strong Language

Strong Language, Vol. 5: Chief Joseph's surrender speech

“What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?” “L’enfer, c’est les autres.” "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."

Great writing is everywhere – in questions that ask more of us than might first appear, in realizations that flash like fire through escape-proof rooms, in advice that gives shape to the reality of the world – in the language that makes us alive; in the language that makes us human.

In this installment of Strong Language, we look at the 1877 surrender speech by Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, a Native American tribe indigenous to what is today northeastern Oregon. After negotiations over the forced transfer of the Nez Perce to a reservation dissolved in violence, Joseph counseled his people to abandon their ancestral lands and seek asylum in Canada. Pursued by U.S. Army cavalry, Joseph led nearly 750 men, women and children in a fighting retreat across the northern plains, crossing nearly 1,200 miles in three months, in what became known as the Nez Perce War.

The war ended on October 5, 1877, in the Bear Paw Mountains of Montana, 40 miles from the Canadian border. After five days of fighting in sub-zero weather, with his major war leaders dead and his supplies nearly nonexistent, Joseph gathered the 430 Nez Perce who were left to him and went before his enemies. The speech he gave was brief; his phrasing was powerful, simple – and so very sad. We present it below, in its entirety:

“Tell General Howard [General Oliver O. Howard, who led the Army pursuit] I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Too-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led the young men is dead.

“It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are – perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, to see how many I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead.

“Hear me, my chiefs. I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

It is a beautiful thing to read, and were you to speak it aloud, as we recommend you do, you would feel in your mouth the weight of the warrior’s words. This is a stripped speech: telegraphic in its lack of adornment, journalistic in its form, with nothing to detract from its power, and nothing to blunt the speaker’s pain.

From Joseph’s words – from the beauty in them, and the heartbreak – we offer this communications insight:

  • Be simple; be direct; be human: your audience, whether online or in person, whether reading your article or listening to your speech or watching your video, is made up of human beings. Human beings who love and are loved, just like you. Human beings with fears and aspirations and regrets and resolutions, just like you. Human beings who, ultimately, are searching for fulfilment and have only so long to find it…just like you.

It sounds obvious, doesn’t it, when stated that way? It is, of course – and yet it’s not. In fact, the simple reality of your audience’s humanity – of the basic humanness of each person within your audience – is extraordinarily easy to forget when we try to communicate with each other.

We might almost approach this insight as a variation on the “Golden Rule,” which most of us will remember from childhood: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The variation might be: “speak unto others as you would have them speak unto you.” You are as alive and as human as every member of your audience, and you must strive, in all your communications, to put yourself – your energy, your spirit, your emotion, your humanity – inside your message.

Do not hide behind buzzwords; do not cloud your phrasing with corporate-speak; do not overwrite or overproduce or do anything that masks you: the man or the woman within the message. Emotions are potent, and directness reaps results.

That’s all for this edition of Strong Language. In our next installment…no. You wouldn’t believe us if we told you. You really wouldn’t.

Strong Language, Vol. 4: "Naked Lunch"

"Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow." "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!"

Great writing is everywhere: in the plays that lay bare the conflict in every human heart, in the songs that reveal the truth from a slightly skewed angle, in the films that give us the strength to confront madness with a smile -- in the language that makes us alive; in the language that makes us human.

In this edition of Strong Language, we look at William Burroughs' novel Naked Lunch: a book described by its own author as "brutal, obscene and disgusting" -- and he's not wrong. A virtually plotless, hazily hallucinatory and (occasionally) openly pornographic descent into the hell of addiction, Naked Lunch exploded all preconceived notions and definitions of fiction and narrative structure upon its publication in Paris in 1959 (and led no less a personage than Norman Mailer to hail Burroughs as "the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius"), while simultaneously, and perhaps not surprisingly, calling down upon itself the wrath of what, to borrow the phrasing of the time, might be thought of as The Establishment.

Naked Lunch was banned in Boston on charges of obscenity in 1962, went on trial in 1965 (with Mailer and Allen Ginsburg, among others, testifying in its defense), and was cleared of obscenity charges in 1966 -- granting every reader the freedom to plunge into Burroughs' phantasmagoria of depravity, and to soar through the skies of his language:

"I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station, vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch an uptown A train..."

"A friend of mine found himself naked in a Marrakesh hotel room second floor...the other occupants are Arabs, three Arabs...knives in hand...watching him...glint of metal and points of light in dark eyes...pieces of murder falling slow as opal chips through glycerine..."

"Motel...Motel...Motel...broken neon arabesque...loneliness moans across the continent like fog horns over still oily waters of tidal rivers..."

"The subway sweeps by with a black blast of iron."

There is more -- so much more -- but there's a communications insight to be gleaned from just these few excerpts:

  • Let your words have wings: it's easy to forget that every communication product you create -- every single one -- is an opportunity for you to grasp the imaginations and emotions of your targets in ways they may have never seen coming. To put it another way: there is no such thing as "just another email." There is no such thing as just another memo, or tweet, or blog post, or webpage, or video clip, or press release, or podcast, or any communication product, whether inward- or outward-facing.

Your audience is placing at your disposal a gift that exists beyond value: the gift of their time and their attention -- and that gift can be lost to you in the instant it takes to blink. You audience could be doing, quite literally, anything else other than listening to you at this moment; what your communications must do is make them feel that there is nothing else they could be doing at this moment that is more important than listening to you, and you can do this by making your language memorable and your imagery unforgettable.

We're not saying that you must be a poet -- but we are saying that you must find the poetry in the prosaic. You must never lose sight of the message you want to convey, but you must also convey it in an intellectually-appealing and emotionally-resonant way. You want your audience to be pleased that they've consumed your communication product -- not only because of what was said there, but also for how it was said -- and to be eager to consume more...and this is what will happen when your words, and the way you wield them, are anything but ordinary.

That's all for this edition of Strong Language. In our next installment, we follow a bitter trail to its inevitable end, and stand beneath the sun with the warrior who, heartsick at the sorrow stalking his people, chose to save them by fighting no more -- forever.

Strong Language, Vol. 3: "The Name of the Rose"

"Government of the people, by the people, for the people." "I will show you fear in a handful of dust." "Go ahead, make my day."

Great writing is everywhere. It's in the speeches that unite us, the poems that unnerve us, the movies that entertain us -- the language that changes us.

In this edition of Strong Language, we look at an excerpt from Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose. In this passage, the protagonist, a Franciscan monk named William of Baskerville, tells his assistant a story about Saint Francis -- the Catholic saint who gives his name to the Franciscan religious order -- and a colony of lepers. William's story, in condensed form, is below:

"For the Christian people they are the others, those who remain on the fringe of the flock. Saint Francis realized this, and his first decision was to go and live among the lepers...the flock is like a series of concentric circles, from the broadest range of the flock to its immediate surroundings. The lepers are a sign of exclusion in general. Saint Francis understood that. Francis wanted to call the outcasts, ready to revolt, to be part of the people of God. If the flock was to be gathered again, the outcasts had to be found again."

In Francis' time, the lepers were hated and feared by the dominant Christian community and they returned that hate and fear in equal measure -- but Francis, far from shunning them, chose to join their community of isolation with the hope that he could lead them out of that isolation, away from their anger and pain and back to a communal feeling of brotherhood.

Eco's book, a murder-mystery set in an Italian monastery in the 14th century, is fabulously layered and symbolically rich, and he uses the lepers as a powerful symbol of all those who feel cast out from society -- for all those who feel, in some way, that the world is changing and they are not welcome in it. The parallels to today should be obvious -- even for those readers of this blog who might not be living through the final days of a presidential election -- and they lead us to a key communications insight:

  • Divide your audience at your peril: it is tempting, and it is easy, to cement your bond with the audience you have by tailoring your communications to appeal to them and them alone...but doing so is a, shall we say, deplorable decision to make.

To borrow from Eco, and Brother William, the entirety of your potential audience is a series of concentric circles, with your current audience closest and your hardest-to-reach audience furthest away. You can think of your external communications, if tailored solely to the audience you have, as building a wall around the circle that comprises your current audience. This is fine in the short term, in the sense that it unites this audience and draws them closer together and closer to you, but in the long term this is strategically unsound: the audience you don't have (which could be convinced to buy your product, or donate to your cause, or give your their vote) is beyond this wall of your communications -- and, even worse, this audience will rightly perceive that this is a wall of your own creation. To say it another way: this audience will feel excluded, and will identify you as the author of their exclusion.

So how do you expand your audience to the next concentric circle beyond the wall you've created? By smashing the wall down, but this is far easier said than done: you risk alienating those who you've kept secure inside your wall, and you will need to overcome the hate and fear of those outside it -- or, more likely (and often more difficult), you will need to overcome their apathy toward you and your mission. You can certainly keep your wall in place if you believe your audience is large enough -- but we can promise you, even without knowing you, that it's not. It never is. Far better to never build the wall at all, unless you have a Francis in your organization -- but that's another post for another time.

That's all for this edition of "Strong Language." In our next installment, we pursue the beauty of pure imagery down a rabbit hole of squalor and addiction -- and find a place where we can enjoy a meal with wide-open eyes.

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.