One of the main challenges of being on staff at camp is the degree to which you suddenly have to communicate with so many people. Because you have decided to accept the awesome responsibility for the fun and safety of other people’s children, you are going to find yourself needing to communicate in more detail, more often, and with a greater number of people than perhaps any other job or experience you have had in your life thus far. Being a frontline staff member means communicating not only with your campers individually and in groups, but also with your co-counselors, specialists, unit director, or head counselor — and possibly even with parents. At times, the communication will be simple, like letting your co-counselors know where you will be during rest hour or filling them in on what happened in your cabin or group while they were away. At other times, it will be more complex, like fi guring out a problem with campers struggling to get along or determining just how you and your co-counselors are going to create fun and excitement on a rainy day when you are short staffed. Whatever the communication, the safety and wellbeing of campers can hang in the balance.
So given this critical need to be in touch with so many people, I thought it might be truly helpful to pass along four simple words that I learned from a famous presidential speechwriter that have helped me improve my own communication with others. Before I tell you about those four words, allow me to give you some background.
I live in Boston, and one of the great advantages of this is having the resources of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library about twenty minutes from my house. The library has an ongoing series of visiting speakers who come to talk about both current and historical events. One frequent guest speaker to the library until his death in the fall of 2010 was Ted Sorenson, President Kennedy’s speechwriter. The famous and oft quoted line from Kennedy’s inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country!” was only one of many lines Mr. Sorenson wrote for President Kennedy.
At the end of a lecture given at the library by Mr. Sorenson just two months before his death, an audience member asked him what he thought the hallmarks of a good speech were. Without hesitating Mr. Sorenson replied that he thought there were four considerations to writing a good speech. The first, he said, was charity. “Be charitable to your audience!” was his advice. He explained that when a speaker acknowledges the contributions, strengths, or positive qualities of the audience, he is not only establishing a rapport and trust with that audience, but is also getting them to listen more intently by complimenting them on the good works they might be doing in their field or in the world at large.
The second consideration, he continued, was clarity. Say what you want to say in simple, accessible, and clear terms. He said the best speeches were those where the messages were clear and directly stated. Being clear with your audience assures that they will walk out of the address with a few well-articulated ideas they can hold onto. The clearer the message, the more likely its chances of being put into practice. As Mr. Sorenson pointed out, a good speech can be entertaining, but to be truly great — to have impact — it has to be memorable. Making your points in a lucid, easily understood manner is one way to produce that effect.
The third quality of a great speech, he contended, was brevity. Audiences, like people in general, he said, appreciate it when you respect their time. Once you have made your points, honor your audience by ending your talk. Doing so allows them to absorb and integrate what it is they have just heard. If you continue to talk, your audience will be forced to listen rather than digest what you have said, making it less likely that they will integrate it into their thinking. Taking up too much time also creates resentment in your audience, which might undo any good your speech might otherwise have accomplished. As the story goes, a reporter remarked to Lincoln about how brief his address at Gettysburg had been, and he replied, “Had I more time I would have made it even shorter!” All good speakers and speechwriters, Mr. Sorenson asserted, know that it is much harder to say something in concise terms than it is to go on and on. His advice was: “Don’t wear out your audience! Doing so reduces your impact.”
The final characteristic of a great speech is levity. Expressing something with humor is like eating sugar to help the medicine go down. People respond to humor not only because it is stimulating and entertaining, but because it also aids in the consideration of serious issues. A lighthearted approach delivered with skill allows us to keep issues of gravity in better perspective.
When I heard Mr. Sorenson say these things, which he undoubtedly did with greater clarity, brevity, and levity than I have in rendering them here, I immediately thought, “These are also the characteristics of great communication with children! I just never put it in such clear terms: charity, clarity, brevity, levity.” I will explain.
When I speak with a child, especially when I want to get them to listen with greater intent, I start with charity. That is, I validate them. I talk about or point out a strength or a positive intention of theirs or frame things in such a way as to understand why they may have been tempted by som