Not many people, historians included, would list our country’s first chief executive, George Washington, as a great communicator. But people today would be wise to study Washington, specifically his communication actions during his Newburg Address in 1783. On this day, Washington — not with guns and cannon, but with words and actions – averted a major crisis and what could have been the unraveling of our young nation.
Two years after the American victory at Yorktown and eight years since the beginning of the Revolution, a war-weary Washington and his army were headquartered at Newburgh, N.Y. Suffering through another brutal winter, they were waiting for the final peace accords with Great Britain to be signed. Washington’s officers were growing impatient and frustrated. With Congress bankrupt and the prospect of the army being disbanded, the men were greatly suspicious they would never receive their back pay or the pension promised them.
On March 11, 1783, Washington’s officers scheduled a meeting to discuss an anonymous letter circulating through camp. The letter urged the officers take a more forceful approach to address their grievances. If the peace treaty was not signed, the officers should quit their posts and let the American citizenry fend for themselves. If the peace accords had been signed, the officers should march on Congress to demand their pay at gunpoint. The letter also undermined Washington’s authority, stating that the officers should “suspect the man who would advise to more moderation and forbearance.”
Upon learning of this mutinous-minded meeting, Washington immediately canceled it. But rather than having that be the last word, he called his own meeting four days later. As the disgruntled Continental Army officers assembled in a simple wooden building, tensions were high and Washington was not expected to attend. But just as the meeting began, the revered general entered through a side door and strode to the podium.
In a highly contentious and confrontational environment, Washington was a masterful communicator, making effective use of several non-verbal and verbal communication techniques. These included his adept use of:
Timing — –In times of crisis or uncertainty, decisive and immediate actions are required. Washington realized this by quickly canceling the officer’s initial meeting. Scheduling his own meeting four days later allowed tensions to ease and gave Washington the necessary time to prepare a thoughtful response. Additionally aware that grievances left unattended can only grow worse, Washington’s meeting provided an outlet for dialog, but within a construct he could control.
Presence — Washington’s role as the head of the army required him to simultaneously wear a military leader’s hat and a politician’s hat. Wearing the politician’s hat taught him the importance of stagecraft and perception. This was executed to perfection when he made his surprise entrance, immediately disarming and catching many in attendance off guard. More importantly, his presence indicated that this was indeed a serious occasion, one that was not above the commander in chief.
Symbolic Gesture – When utilized correctly, symbols or symbolic gestures can be highly effective. At the end of his speech, Washington attempted to read a letter from a Congressman attesting to Congress’s intent to pay the soldiers. Straining to read the first few sentences, Washington paused to put on new spectacles. No one in the building had ever seen Washington wear spectacles before. “Gentlemen,” he said, “you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind.” The man who had fearlessly and energetically led them in battle for eight years was aging before their eyes. The effect was moving and poignant and elicited a sympathetic response.
Tone – Washington’s address ranged from stern and reasoned to empathetic, impassioned and empowering. He began by admonishing the men for scheduling an irregular meeting. But then he spoke of their shared sacrifices and the common goal they had fought to achieve. He appealed to their honor telling them that their actions would “sully the glory” they had won in wresting liberty from a tyrant. Then, knowing he was speaking to military men he adroitly cast the anonymous letter’s author as an enemy. But most notably, his tone was neither condescending nor vitriolic. He spoke as a peer and showed empathy to their situation.
Tempo — According to Washington author Ron Chernow, the written speech (authored by Washington himself) was “covered with exclamation points and dashes for pauses, revealing the strong sense of cadence he gave to his speeches.” Washington created an appealing tempo through repetition that further captured his audience’s attention, especially when he intoned, “You will pursue the plain and direct road to the attainment of your wishes. You will defeat the insidious designs of our Enemies…You will give one more distinguished proof of unexampled patriotism…”
The day after Washington’s address, the officers approved a unanimous resolution stating they “reciprocated [Washington’s] affectionate expressions with the greatest sincerity of which the human heart is capable.” The near-mutiny and all of its ramifications were dead. Congress eventually granted the officers a pension of five years of full pay for their service.
We have plenty to appreciate and emulate from Washington’s communication skills at Newburgh more than two centuries ago. Great communicators are quick to act in crisis situations; they can rally people to their side; they are authentic; and they know the power of symbols. They also understand the importance of having a foundation built on trust and respect from which to deliver messages.
What are your thoughts? How are you persuading and convincing audiences to achieve positive results?