The Roosevelt Distinction

I didn’t say much as a child. I was born into a family of talkers and storytellers so there wasn’t much need for me to say anything. To be honest, even when I did want to speak up, it was difficult to get a word in.

As you might expect of a family that loves to discuss and debate, the house was full of books. To me, the most accessible of my parents’ books were dictionaries of quotations. So while the rapid-fire chat happened around me I used to flick through these quotations looking for anything relevant I could use there and then, or something funny I could repeat the next day at school, passing it off as my original thought to classmates or even teachers.

There was one quotation that stuck in my head even though it wasn’t going to get a laugh in the classroom. It’s an anonymous quotation that’s now often misattributed to Eleanor Roosevelt:

“Great people talk about ideas. Average people talk about things. Small people talk about other people.”

At the time I accepted it, unthinkingly, and for a while afterwards I found myself unfairly grading my family’s discussions. Were they talking about people again? Tut tut.

I don’t agree with that statement now, but I’ve never forgotten it and I do think there’s value in the distinction between those three spheres of conversation: things, people, ideas.

In the category of THINGS I include not just physical objects, but also events, facts and figures, plans, dates, pieces of music, TV shows and other specific entities though they might not be tangible.

PEOPLE is a pretty self-explanatory category, but of course it includes talking about yourself.

Then there’s the category of IDEAS. This is the realm of the notional, the abstract, the ‘what-if?’ and ‘why?’. Concepts, theories, speculation and counterfactual investigation all fall into this category.

Different people are comfortable in different areas of conversation. One way to connect with somebody quickly is to work out which area most suits them. The philosophy of ChatNav is about recognising the many possible categories of conversation and how to use that knowledge in practice. But its scope is not just conversation; it’s incredibly effective when applied to speeches.

In some ways, speeches can be treated as one-way conversations, but anyone addressing a group needs to connect with a whole lot of people at once: to engage them, seduce them, entrance them, instruct them… all the things that might happen in good conversation, but even more so.

So a speechmaker has a problem. Unlike the conversationalist, he rarely has the chance to discover whether each member of the audience is interested in things, people or ideas. To appeal to everybody at once he needs to cover all three. And one man managed to get himself elected President of the United States by doing just that.

It was 1992. There was a Presidential election in full swing in the USA. The three candidates: Republican President George Bush, who was seeking re-election; his opponent from the Democratic Party, Bill Clinton; and multi-millionaire businessman Ross Perot, an independent candidate who had run for the White House twice before, without success.

The second of the televised debates between the candidates was billed as ‘a conversation with the American people’, with questions coming from a studio audience of ordinary people, rather than a select panel or a single chairperson.

I wondered which of the three categories this ‘conversation’ would fall into. I didn’t expect that a single moment would demonstrate so clearly the importance of covering all three. It was a moment that affected the entire campaign and went down in history as ‘Clinton’s debate moment’.

If you haven’t seen it you can watch a snippet a little further down this page, but I’ve transcribed it for you because it perfectly encapsulates the core message of ChatNav. I still can’t watch it without mentally keeping track of whether the candidates are talking about things, people or ideas.

A lady in the audience stood for her turn and asked:

“How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives? And if it hasn’t, how can you honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people if you have no experience in what’s ailing them?”

It was a question which obviously invited the candidates to talk about themselves. Perot, the first to answer, did just that. He mentioned his “very modest” background, his present private life, business life and his family. Referring to “a strong basic economy”, he finished with this: “I owe it to the future generations, and on a very personal basis, I owe it to my children and grandchildren.”

His answer was relatively brief. Where the question led him to talk about himself, that’s what he had done – his past, his current situation, then he’d expanded to other people, including those “future generations”, whether they were his own progeny or not.

Bush did just the opposite. As the candidate with the most privileged background it was in his interest to talk about anything but himself. In fact, he tried to begin by talking about interest rates but was cut off by the chair. After that false start, he quickly moved from talking about himself to other people, then he ended by hammering home the fact that he was the President (always a solid move), and listing three THINGS:

“So it’s sad, but I think in terms of the recession… of course you feel it when you’re president of the United States. And that’s why I’m trying to do something about it! By stimulating the exports, investing more, a better education system.”

Finally it was Clinton’s turn. His answer is a remarkable piece of rhetoric for all sorts of reasons, not least because it came across as so natural and off-the-cuff. It starts to look like an even more remarkable answer (and becomes a lesson in how to become a totally rounded speechmaker and conversationalist) when you realise that, with conversations, speeches or any type of verbal or written interaction, there’s another dimension.

It isn’t, after all, as simple as THINGS, PEOPLE or IDEAS. You have to add TIME.

Perot talked about his past, his present and “future generations” – people through time. Bush talked about people and things, but only in the present. Clinton was the only candidate who touched on THINGS, PEOPLE and IDEAS, each in the PAST, PRESENT and FUTURE.

Have a look:

He started by addressing the woman in the audience who had posed the question.

“Tell me how it’s affected you again? You know people who’ve lost their jobs, lost their homes?”

The woman with the microphone nodded – which she proceeded to do almost all the way through Clinton’s answer – and said, “Uhuh.” Here’s his answer in full.

“Well I’ve been Governor of a small state for 12 years. I’ll tell you how it’s affected me.

“Every year Congress and the President sign laws that make us do more things but give us less money to do it with. I see people in my state – their taxes have gone up from Washington and their services have gone down, while the wealthy have gotten tax cuts.

“I have seen what’s happened in these last 4 years. In my state when people lose their jobs there’s a good chance I’ll know them by their names. When a factory closes I know the people who ran it. When the businesses go bankrupt I know them.

“And I’ve been out here for 13 months meeting in meetings ever since October with people like you all over America, people that have lost their jobs, lost their livelihood, lost their health insurance.

“What I want you to understand is: the national debt is not the only cause of that. It is because America has not invested in its people. It is because we have not grown. It is because we’ve had 12 years of trickle down economics. We’ve gone from 1st to 12th in the world in wages. We’ve had 4 years where we’ve produced no private sector jobs.

“Most people are working harder for less money than they were making 10 years ago. It is because we are in the grip of a failed economic theory and this decision you’re about to make better be about what kind of economic theory you want – not just people saying ‘I want to go fix it’ but ‘what are we going to do?’.

“What I think we have got to do is invest in American jobs, the American education system, control American health care costs and bring the American people together again.”

When you add TIME to THINGS, PEOPLE and IDEAS, you get THE CHATNAV MAP.

This is the map that describes every conversation, whether we’re talking to all of the American people or a friend in a coffee shop. In fact it covers speeches, negotiations, interviews, journalism and a whole range of other disciplines. You can use it to seduce, to persuade or just to help you chat. Of course, if you ever try to get elected President it’ll be pretty useful too – especially if, like Clinton, you can hit every single point on the chart in one short speech.

Get in touch, below, to find out how Clinton’s debate ‘moment’  looks on the ChatNav Map, and how to apply the lessons of his triumph to your own networking and speechmaking skills.

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