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FDR’s words stirred and steered hearts

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in Leaders & Managers,Workplace Communication

You probably know that “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” comes from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inaugural address.

What you may not know is that FDR’s use of a new medium—radio— was how he calmed Americans’ financial fears and began moving the nation slowly out of the Depression.

In a nutshell, he did it by:
  • Breaking with tradition. Roosevelt decided to make the first presidential broadcast a folksy “fireside chat” instead of a formal address.

  • Visualizing a family and some neighbors listening.

    “As he talked, his head would nod and his hands would move in natural, relaxed gestures,” said Frances Perkins, FDR’s labor secretary. “His face would light up as though he were actually sitting with people.”

  • Focusing on clarity. Roosevelt explained the basics of banking and how banks would reopen, without talking down to people.

    “He made everyone understand it,” said humorist Will Rogers. “Even the bankers.”

  • Guiding his listeners’ thinking. Assuring Americans that banks were a safer place for their money than under their mattresses, FDR gently derided hoarding as “exceedingly unfashionable.”
Based on its immediate impact, FDR’s first broadcast may have been the greatest presidential speech ever. The next day—Monday, March 13, 1933—Americans formed long lines at banks to redeposit their money. The New York Stock Exchange reopened and regained 15 percent, the biggest one-day jump in more than 50 years. Most banks reopened within a week.

—Adapted from “Voice of Courage,” Jonathan Alter, Reader’s Digest.

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