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The Power of Charisma

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As I have been working on my public speaking skills, I have searched for a role model or an example of excellence in successful speaking. I would like to capture people’s attention and inspire them to action. I’ve realized that keeping people’s attention is hard enough. To go further and convince them of my message and get my audience to move and take action is the epitome of skill.

I can imagine standing before a crowd, speaking passionately and hearing their approving cheers! I could leave them with the will and motivation to get moving, to change their lives. That picture of a powerful speaker resolves itself from foggy to specific and the role model emerges: Adolf Hitler.

Hitler knew how to get his audience going. He spoke and thousands marched. In fact, thousands died. MILLIONS died, and many of them died unwillingly at the hands of Hitler’s followers. What power Hitler wielded!

I shudder at the thought. If he is the archetype of the powerful public speaker, I question my desire to be like him. He changed the world in an overwhelmingly destructive way. I want no part of that.

He spoke to his audience and told them of their superiority. YOU are the best; YOU are the masters of the universe. Flattering their pride, he pushed them to action. Stoking the fire of envy, he told the German people that they had been treated unfairly in the world. WWI had left them without their rightful share, and they should be willing to do whatever it took to get it back. In fact, since they were such fabulous specimens of humanity, they should get more than their equal share. They should have more, and because they were the greatest, whatever they did to get it was by definition the right thing.

Adolf Hitler appealed to pride and selfishness in his audience, and changed the world for the worse.

But if I am looking for a role model of public speaking, there was another man in that same time period who spoke convincingly and changed the world. Over in the East, Gandhi was learning the art of speaking while Hitler practiced in the West.

Gandhi was working to throw off colonial British Rule in India. He saw injustice and unfairness in his native country, and wanted to end it. Gandhi’s message appealed to the peoples’ best selves. He did speak of what people deserved and had a right to get, but he told his audience to be of the most sterling character and to sacrifice. He would not suffer a compromise of individual conscience. He said he would die like a soldier for his cause, but he would never kill.

He indeed inspired his audience to gather and march, many of them to their death. The individual’s pride came from right actions, not from status or possessions.

Gandhi himself put on homespun clothes and lay aside the glamor and position he had formerly held as an upper-class anglicized Indian. When he spoke, he would sometime sit on the floor of the platform to be closer to his humble audience.

When his back was to the wall, and he had nowhere else to go to further his cause of equality and justice, he turned on himself. He sacrificed even further by abstaining from food, willing to die rather than suffer the violence of his countrymen against one another.

When Hitler found himself on the losing side of his cause, he shot himself—suicide and selfishness.

Both men were in the end true to their message.

I will never have the influence that these men had on people over the world. But what small portion I have, I hope to use following the example of Mahatma Gandhi, and be willing to sacrifice and uphold my best character in all my actions.

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  • Interesting. I was expecting to read something about Barack Obama – the pre-eminent example in the present day of the power of charismatic speaking to drive masses of people to act (in this case, to vote Democratic two years ago).

  • Jon raises a good point. It may be that the shelf life of a charismatic orator is far shorter than in the past. Obama’s eloquence helped him win the White House in 2008, but hasn’t served him well since. His approval rating is now 37%, the lowest of his presidency. This bodes well insofar as it suggests that we the people are quick to turn on a master orator who doesn’t live up to his message. Oratory for its own sake, or for selfish, short-term advantage, is ephemeral. Charisma can fool part of the people all of the time, but not enough of the people enough of the time.