Lesson: Speak your audience's language and ask for one small step
It was December 31, 1776. Thousands of soldiers, stood in the freezing snow, blisters on their feet, wounds festering, frostbite setting; all wore tattered and dirty clothes. The next day, the American Army under General Washington would be released from their contracts. Though they had just won a battle outside Trenton, New Jersey, the war was on the verge of being lost. In each soldier’s mind was an image. Different in each, but the same in theme: Home. No arguments, no threats, no begging could incur these beleaguered men to stay and fight any longer. They could see the dawn and on January 1st, they would seize it.
That would be the end of the war, and the end of American Independence.
So Washington and his staff developed a plan. They would offer any man who would sign up for another six months a $10 signing bonus, which was no small amount in those days.
Washington, atop his war horse, watched the proceedings in anticipation. No one could perceive the turmoil within the daunting man. His calm and noble visage was a powerful force on the soldiers. They had seen his willingness to fight alongside them. They knew of his great character. They loved him. But they were tired. Suddenly, the drums rolled in military fashion. A staff member made the announcement. “Any man,” he said, “who wishes to sign up for another six months step forward now.” Drums rolled again.
Not a mortal man moved.
Washington looked like the stone statue that would one day be made of him. Instinctively realizing this was the end of all their efforts, he rode out before his men. And he spoke in his deep somber voice:
“My Brave Fellows. You have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected. But your country is at stake. Your wives, your houses, all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty and to your country which you can probably never do under any other circumstances.”
Again the rattle of drums echoed into the still air.
Nothing—Washington was a picture of stoic perseverance.
Then a few scattered men stepped forward. Then more. Then every single American crossed the line.
They would go on to fight for Washington another month, and then another, and many more months until American independence was won.
George Washington had instinctively grasped that he and his staff had taken the wrong tactic by speaking the language of incentives to the men. They had not joined for money. When he switched to a language of values and beliefs, he had coached the offer in terms that resounded with them.
More importantly, he did not ask for a daunting six months, but for “one month longer.” He did not ask them to completely capitulate their position. He asked for one small step. They took it.