The most important element in a talk to persuade is your belief in the “rightness” of the course you are asking the audience to take. The most persuasive evidence used in support of your belief is a human-interest story. A great story enables you to speak your mind and bare your soul.
Let me share a story with you: how a masterful talk to motivate and persuade saved the day.
Back in the early days of Communispond, we were a subsidiary of J. Walter Thompson (JWT), and a pretty small subsidiary at that, with only ten employees. JWT was the world’s largest advertising agency and proud of it. The United States Marine Corps was one of its accounts. We at Communispond capitalized on this relationship to land our biggest sale ever, a three-year contract to train all Marine Corps recruiters in speaker skills.
We did this work at the Marine Corps recruiter school in San Diego. It’s a six-week school that is run six times a year, covering all the subject matter the recruiter needs in order to carry out his or her responsibilities. Speaker training is taught for two days in each six-week cycle.
Nine hundred applicants for recruiter training were selected each year on a quota basis from each of six regions. They were staff sergeants and up. Requirements were three years of high school, four years of service time, and a recommendation from their commanding officer. The “tour” in this billet was two years and was considered a prestigious appointment.
The recruiter school was tough and demanding. Once a recruiter graduated, he or she was assigned to a recruiting office in any one of a hundred or more locations, usually in a highly populated area. Recruiters had to find prospects, excite them about a career in the Corps, and persuade them to sign up.
Where to find them? High schools, of course. How to excite them? By giving talks to the senior class. That’s why speaker training was so important. The Marine Corps needed recruiters, and the recruiters needed speaker training.
Seven months into our program, we received a letter from General Schultz, the head of Marine Corps Recruiting, saying the Corps was eliminating speaker training for the last four months of the year. Just like that, they were going to cut one-third of our business! In the letter, we were also afforded the opportunity “to plead your case if you disagree with the actions we are taking.”
Sure, we’d plead our case, but it was obviously perfunctory. The business was gone. It was a “budget thing” for the Marine Corps. Overall they had to cut millions of dollars. Virtually all suppliers were cut. We were part of it—a very small part, from their vantage point. Huge from ours.
Prior to the dreaded meeting, three of us at Communispond met to discuss what we might present. The three were Charlie Windhorst, my partner and cofounder of the company, Jim McGuirk, the account manager who was responsible for the account, and myself. We talked and argued and tried to work out a strategy to save the business.
Our dilemma was real. Charlie phrased it best: “How do you win an argument with the United States government when they have the money, the authority, and the Marine Corps on their side?”
One thing we agreed on was that Jim McGuirk and I would both make the trip. I would go because I was the president, and the letter asked for my presence. Jim would accompany me because he was the main person on the account and knew it inside out. He was our man who welcomed each group of 175 candidates to the San Diego recruiter school on behalf of Communispond Speaker Training. In the course of eight months, he had addressed some six hundred recruiter school attendees and personally spent two days teaching most of them. In addition, he was our number-one instructor.
Jim was New Jersey born and about thirty-five years old. He had somehow never spent time in the military. His hair was a little too long for the business community, much less the Marine Corps. In that era, he looked sort of like a hippie. If you went to central casting to select a person to handle the Marine Corps account, you wouldn’t pick Jim McGuirk. But he was as smart as he could be and a magnificent instructor. And he cared. Oh my, how he cared.
Here was the assemblage:
General Brown, Chief of Staff, the third ranking Marine Corps officer after the commandant and the assistant commandant
General Schultz, head of Marine Corps Recruiting
Four full colonels (these four gentlemen had some aspect of responsibility for recruitment and budgeting)
Two lieutenant colonels (members of General Brown’s staff)
Lt. Colonel C. D. Silard Jr., head of recruitment advertising
Two majors, including Major Pete Rowe, the Marine Corps liaison with J. Walter Thompson advertising agency
On our side of the table were Jim McGuirk and me. “Holy cow,” I thought, “that’s thirteen people in one room for one rather perfunctory meeting.”
We went through the normal small talk first. I shook hands with each of them. I always do that when I teach a Communispond program, and I thought it was probably a good idea here as well. One thing I’ve learned is that if an instructor shakes hands with a participant before the program, that person will more likely be an advocate rather than a problem. I’m sure politicians feel the same way.
There was another reason. Neither Jim nor I had ever shaken the hand of a general before. We were like anyone else. We were awed by their crisp uniforms, by the gold braid on their hats, and by the stars on their shoulders. And we were respectful of those officers who had achieved so much.
But we had a job to do. Our company was small, only ten people. All ten depended upon Communispond for their income. And those Marine Corps officers were intent on taking a large part of it away from us. At least that’s the way we looked at it.
“The United States government has conducted a budget review, as it always does at this time of year, and found that it was running above budget. It is requiring all branches of the military to identify areas where proposed activity could be postponed or cancelled. It has asked the Marine Corps to “find” twenty-seven million dollars. The Communispond speaker training has been earmarked as a contributor to this saving. Our letter to you, Mr. Daley, explained all this. You have been offered the opportunity to respond to our letter of intent and give your perspective on our planned action.”
I thought to myself, “This colonel is obviously a budget man. Jim and I don’t have a chance to turn this around.” Nonetheless, I began.
I showed some statistics. We had trained 613 recruiter candidates thus far. The students rated each course in the five-week school. I presented the ratings. The numbers were awesome. I felt immense pride in what Jim and our other instructors had accomplished.
Overall rating of speaker training on a 5.0 scale
Rating of our Communispond instructors
Importance of speaker training
Average rating for all other subjects covered in the six-week recruiter school
Highest rating for any subject other than speaker training in the six-week school
The eleven Marine Corps officers around the table had to be impressed. But they didn’t show it.
I read samples of the verbatim evaluations written by the students. They were overwhelmingly positive. They loved the training. They wan-ted more, not less. They said it was the best feature of recruiter school.
I read out loud some of the evaluations of speaker training written by the staff of the San Diego school. They taught all subject matter in the school except for speaker training, but there was no professional jealousy. They were equally positive and supportive of what we had done.
I ended by saying that we felt the impact of the six-week school would be diminished if the budget cut were maintained. I asked that the order be rescinded and that speaker training be reinstated. I sat down, knowing that I had gone through the motions but that my presentation wasn’t going to change any minds.
General Schultz reinforced that perspective when he said, “Thank you, Kevin, for your informative review. We are pleased with the work you and your people have done for the Marine Corps and certainly hope that, in the future, you will have the opportunity to continue your work with the recruiter school in San Diego. I must emphasize the point that the action we are taking is brought about by budget constraints alone. It is not a reflection on you or your company.”
Then he looked around the table and asked, “Does anyone else have something to say on this subject?” At that point I knew it was over. We had made a darn good case for our side, but they were on a mission to reduce expenditures and they had to remain firm.
The general waited a full ten seconds with no response. He rose to his feet, obviously intent on ending the meeting and said, “Very well then ... ”
But he was interrupted by Jim McGuirk, who stood up and said, “General Schultz, if you will allow me, I do have something to say.” General Schultz nodded and sat back down. (I was surprised that Jim was speaking because we hadn’t talked about this). Jim began:
I’ve worked with more than six hundred Marine Corps recruiter candidates in the past eight months. As you know, they each spend two days learning how to speak to an audience on behalf of the Marine Corps. They learn how to handle a sometimes-restless audience of high school seniors. They learn to be interesting, sometimes even entertaining. They learn how to present the Marine Corps as an exciting career with immense opportunity.
They also learn how to look the father of a seventeen-year-old in the eye and say, “The Marine Corps is an institution, larger than most of the major corporations in the country. The career opportunities for your son (or daughter) are just as varied. We will help your child discover what talent he has. We’ll teach the skills that she needs. They’ll learn a trade or an occupation. They will learn teamwork, self-discipline, loyalty to their fellow marines, love of country, and faithfulness to its ideals. It’s a great life if he or she wants it and if he or she qualifies.”
The recruiters have to learn to tell that story credibly. That’s our job. We teach them to communicate the Marine Corps story, to tell it well, to tell it persuasively, to be better recruiters.
But we do so much more. Let me tell you a story. I had one young lad in my class. His name was Steve, twenty-four years old, with four years in the Corps. Steve was a decorated Vietnam hero. He had a bull neck and a high and tight haircut. And he wore the uniform well, chest out, chin up. You just looked at him and you could tell he was proud to be a marine.
But he was afraid to stand and speak in front of the group. He trembled. He shook. The words were almost inaudible. I worked extra hard with Steve, pushing, cajoling, coaching him, through each of the eleven talks that he gave in the training. He had so much potential. And he got better, and better, and better.
At the end of the two days he came up to me and said,
“Sir, can I say something to you?”
I said, “Of course, Steve.”
He said, “Sir, these have been the finest two days of my life.”
He paused for a moment as though to gather his thoughts. “Before this school, I’ve always been terrified of an audience. I couldn’t do it. I’ve been ashamed, but I felt helpless.”
Steve finished by saying, “Today, I finally feel like a man. I thank you for that.”
I shook his hand, and my eyes filled with tears. Top Teeter, a Master Gunnery Sergeant on the staff, was with us at the time, and he said, “Jim, you are not supposed to cry in front of marines.” He was laughing as he said it, but he had tear marks on his face, too.
I looked at the eleven Marine Corps officers listening to Jim. They were rapt, still, hardly breathing. Jim went on:
I’m not apologizing for my tears. I had just witnessed a miracle. I had watched a twenty-four-year-old marine overcome a fear that had tied him in knots his entire life. I saw a decorated war hero become a better man, a better marine.
And that’s what our speaker training is all about. It’s about young men and women discovering themselves, discovering the potential and the power that resides in them. It’s seeing a young boy become a man right before your eyes. It’s seeing a United States Marine stand taller because she knows she can face any audience and handle herself well.
And that’s the risk you have to weigh as you consider eliminating this training. If you take it away, how do you replace this life-defining experience? Where else can your recruiters get it? Where else can they go? They look to you to make the decisions that are best for the Marine Corps and best for them.
You have to save money, you’ve told us that. Your overall need is twenty-seven million dollars. And you are looking to save a small portion of it by canceling speaker training. I understand your need.
Jim concluded with:
But I implore you to look for it where the damage is not so great. Don’t save it where it hurts these young men and young women the most. Don’t save money at the expense of their selfesteem. Don’t take away what Steve called, “the two finest days of my life.” Don’t take away the training that gives them courage to do their jobs as recruiters.
So where do you find the money you are trying to save?
Jim asked this rhetorical question softly, as though he were talking to himself. Then he paused, looked at General Brown, and said in steadily increasing volume:
Sell a tank.
Sell a tank.
Sell a tank!
Then he said his final sentence very softly:
But don’t deprive these fine young men and women of the opportunity to become stronger, more confident, better marines than they were before.
Jim sat down. Everyone was sitting. There was only silence. Then General Brown, the senior officer in the room, stood up and walked toward Jim and me. He was smiling. He had his hand out. Since I was the president of Communispond, I assumed he was reaching for me. So I put my hand out, but he walked right by me. It was Jim’s hand he clasped, and he shook it like an old friend.
Then he said in a strong voice, which could be heard by all:
“Jim, I am deeply moved by your presentation. What you have shared with us captures the true spirit and heritage of the Marine Corps.
“As an organization, we challenge our men and women to constantly reach for new levels of excellence. We are not satisfied with the commonplace. Our recruiting slogan says, ‘The Proud, The Few, The Marines.’ We must never forget that the growth and development of our personnel is what makes the Corps the elite branch that it is.
“We will meet and discuss your presentation.”
Then he turned to me and said, “Kevin, you will hear from us within a week. The meeting is adjourned.”
Jim and I kept our game faces on until we found an empty room. Then we hugged one another and said, “We’ve got a chance. Believe it or not, we’ve got a chance!”
On the following Monday we received a letter from General Schultz reinstating the remainder of our speaker training schedule. I read the letter out loud to the entire office. We whooped and hollered. Since when did the United States government, or the United States Marine Corps, ever change its mind?
We analyzed what had happened. Facts and statistics had not done the job. Only Jim McGuirk’s passion could break through their wall of resistance. He persuaded them.
Is there a lesson in this experience? Yes, there is. Never underestimate the power of intensity, the power of a passionate appeal, the power of a presenter’s total commitment to his cause—the power of a great story.
You may worry that you might overdo this, go to far, show too much passion. Are there such times? The answer is yes, but not when selling an idea or persuading a group. It is true that passion can work to your disadvantage when you are being critiqued or criticized. If you find yourself deliberately put on the defensive, then you are probably better off being cool and calculating in your demeanor.
But when you are trying to generate excitement inside your listeners, you had better pump up your own excitement so that they can tell you are holding nothing back. Here is another quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Every great movement in the annals of history is a triumph of enthusiasm.” Passion and enthusiasm are closely related.
They contributed mightily to Jim McGuirk’s triumph. They will do the same for you—so long as you don’t hold back.