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The Making of Great Communicators

CAMBRIDGE – Perhaps the most impressive current example of leadership based on the ability to communicate is Barack Obama, who has given three times as many interviews as George W. Bush and held four times as many prime press conferences as Bill Clinton at this stage in their presidencies. Some critics are now wondering if all this talking is too much of a good thing.

All inspirational leaders communicate effectively. Winston Churchill often attributed his success to his mastery of the English sentence. The ancient Greeks had schools of rhetoric to hone their skills for the assembly. Cicero made his mark in the Roman Senate after studying oratory.

Good rhetorical skills help to generate soft power. Woodrow Wilson was not a gifted student as a child, but he taught himself oratory because he regarded it as essential for leadership. Martin Luther King, Jr. benefited from growing up in an African-American church tradition rich in the rhythms of the spoken word. Clinton was able to combine a sense of theater with narrative stories and an overall ability to convey an argument. According to his staff, he developed and improved this gradually over his career.

Oratory and inspirational rhetoric, however, are not the only forms of communication with which leaders frame issues and create meaning for their followers. Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, was hardly an inspirational speaker, but markets and politicians hung on his every word, and he tailored the nuances of his language to reinforce the direction in which he wanted to lead monetary policy. Unfortunately, as the financial crisis of 2008 demonstrated, it would have been better if Congressional committees had pressed him to communicate more clearly.