On January 28, 1986, the American shuttle orbiter Challenger broke up 73 seconds after liftoff, bringing a devastating end to the spacecraft’s 10th mission. The disaster claimed the lives of all seven astronauts aboard. It was a tragedy that shook the country.
Even before the smoke cleared, President Reagan had the unenviable job of explaining the event to the country. He had to speak to millions of diverse Americans yet connect with them. He had to bring a divided and emotional country together. What followed was one of the greatest speeches of all time.
“Everything I do is personal.” – Francis Ford Coppola
Reagan took time to relate to each section of our nation. And, he didn’t target us as a faceless mass, instead spoke to each section separately.
He started by speaking directly to the families of the fallen seven: “For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we’re thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, “Give me a challenge and I’ll meet it with joy.” They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us.”
Then, he spoke to the children: “I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.”
Reagan also addressed those who worked at NASA: “I want to add that I wish I could talk to every man and woman who works for NASA or who worked on this mission and tell them: “Your dedication and professionalism have moved and impressed us for decades. And we know of your anguish. We share it.”
And through the entire speech, he spoke to the people of our nation.
Today, our country stands deeply divided and heavily impacted by COVID-19. As business leaders, there are two lessons to that we can learn from the challenger address.
First, we must internalize that we are not speaking to a uniform faceless mass. Let’s break the big groups into sections, find out what is the relevant message for each one of them and then deliver them.
Second, in our data-driven worlds, we over-emphasize logic and under-emphasize emotional connection with the audience. So, we must use a combination of ethics, emotion and logic (Ethos, Pathos, Logos) to directly resonate with each part of the audience.
As Reagan said, “The future belongs to the brave,” so be brave when you present. Speak directly with emotion to the specific parts of your audience.
Here is the link to the full speech: