Great Communicators Are Made, Not Born, According To Presidential Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin


Communication is a crucial skill for successful leadership, says Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her new MasterClass.

According to Goodwin, some U.S. presidents were born with characteristics that served them well as leaders (Lincoln had empathy, FDR had optimism), but “they mostly made themselves leaders.”

Goodwin’s research shows that many of America’s most influential presidents worked hard at developing their skills of persuasion.

The ability to communicate to persuade people to action is—like most skills—one that leaders can sharpen with time and dedication.


“As a result, he simplified his language,” says Goodwin. When a speechwriter wrote a draft for one of FDR’s fireside chats, Roosevelt scratched out the words “a more inclusive society.” He replaced the phrase with “a society in which no one is left out.” If Roosevelt could find a one-syllable word to replace a longer one, he’d use it.

FDR’s skill with language paid off during the banking crisis which engulfed the nation before he became president. In March, 1933, Roosevelt ordered the temporary closing of all banks to prevent a financial crisis. When it came time to re-open the healthy banks, Roosevelt took to the radio to address the American people and reassure them that their money was safe. Above all, he had to prevent a rush of panicked customers taking their money out of the banks.

Roosevelt translated the arcane language of the U.S. Treasury into a simple explanation anyone could understand. “I can assure you that it is safer to keep your money in a reopened bank than under the mattress,” he concluded.

Roosevelt’s appeal worked. People lined up to put their money back into the banks. Confidence had been restored thanks to Roosevelt’s simple, clear language.

Goodwin reminds us that Teddy Roosevelt was also the first president who defined his entire legislative program in one short phrase: The Square Deal.

The program was intended to deal with the problems of the Industrial Revolution that had shaken the economy. The ‘square deal’ meant that Roosevelt intended to treat all parties fairly. “It was for the capitalist and the wageworker, for the union guy and the businessman, the rich and the poor,” says Goodwin.

Goodwin defines leadership as “the ability to use talent, skills, and emotional intelligence to mobilize people to a common purpose.”

Effective communication is central to Goodwin’s definition. Words can change feelings—lifting hopes and restoring confidence. Words can mobilize people to action. Words can change a country or a company’s collective mood.

Great leaders understand the power of language and work hard to sharpen their communication skills.

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