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Classes from the convictions of essentially the most well-known American presidents

18, 2013

6 min read

The opinions expressed by the entrepreneur's contributors are their own.

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On President's Day, entrepreneurs might do well to think about what they can learn from our nation's greatest communicators.

"The main business of the modern presidency is conviction – convincing people to do things they should but don't necessarily want to do – which is not so different from an entrepreneur selling a product," says the former Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith head of six presidential libraries and author of Thomas E. Dewey and His Time (Simon & Schuster, 1982), 1983 Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Here are six lessons you can learn from some of America's most famous presidents, each illustrating a different facet of persuasive communication:

1. Aim big but be precise.
John F. Kennedy successfully turned his goal of putting a man on the moon by the late 1960s from a pie in the sky idea to an achievable reality, said Douglas Brinkley, author and professor of history at Rice University. "Kennedy had a good sales pitch – we can beat the Soviet Union; we can win – and it sparked people's imaginations," says Brinkley. But it was the detailed, time-specific nature of his plan that gave politicians and the American people something to leave behind.

Lesson for Entrepreneurs: Businesses Should Ask "What's Our Moon Shot?" and then back it up with a specific strategy and timeframe, says Brinkley. "Think about what is big and brave and what your company can do and do your research. And a schedule is extremely important, so more than empty promises."

Related: How to Be a More Charismatic Leader

Lessons from the convictions of the most famous American presidentsPresident Franklin D. Roosevelt; Image Credit: NPR

2. Get out among the people.
Franklin D. Roosevelt suffered from polio and spent summers receiving treatment at the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, where he bonded with some of the poorest Americans – tenants of the Great Depression. "FDR is a great example of a president who stepped out and listened to people," says Brinkley. "This has shaped many of his New Deal ideas."

Lesson for Entrepreneurs: In times of conference calls and Skype meetings, it is easy for small business owners and salespeople to lose the personal touch that is so important to building relationships. "For small business owners, it's often about showing yourself and getting your company part of the fabric of the community," says Brinkley.

Lessons from the convictions of the most famous American presidents

3. Tell your story well.
"The best storytellers are the most rehearsed," says Presidential historian Doug Wead, who is a special assistant to President George H.W. Bush and is the author of All the Presidents' Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of First Families (Atria Books, 2003). The story of Abraham Lincoln rehearsing the Gettysburg address in his car is legendary. In his speeches and conversations he was also able to quote long passages from the Bible, Aesop's fables and other books that he owned as a child.

Lesson for the Entrepreneur: Lincoln's penchant for memorization has served him well, whether addressing heads of state, cabinet members, or the American people. "Knowing your sales pitch well enough that you can talk about it in your sleep and anticipate any question is also a key to being successful in business," says Wead.

Related: 4 Leadership Lessons From Abraham Lincoln

Lessons from the convictions of the most famous American presidents

4. A memorable line goes a long way.
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." "Don't ask what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." Nothing is as effective as a simple but memorable message like these iconic lines from Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. With such powerful rhetoric, both presidents stimulated two generations to act.

Lesson for entrepreneurs: "If I'm listening to a speech and can't repeat a line a president said, it hasn't got there," said Barbara Perry, senior fellow and presidential researcher at the University of Virginia Miller Center. "The same applies to a company's marketing campaign or sales presentation." She points to Wendy's "Where's the beef?" and Alka-Seltzer's "I can't believe I ate the whole thing" as examples of successful slogans that many people still remember.

Lessons from the convictions of the most famous American presidents

5. Put a human face on things.
When Lyndon B. Johnson tried to sell his Great Society reforms to the American people, he used his own experience to humanize the program. "Stories based on his experience in Texas brought the statistics to life, and programs like Head Start took on a whole new dimension," says Smith.

Lesson for an Entrepreneur: Whether you're a president trying to sell a program or an entrepreneur trying to sell a product, talking about your own experiences can add life and depth to the presentation, says Smith. "You'll do a lot better when it connects with people first emotionally and then intellectually."

Related: Best inspirational words from business leaders in 2012

Lessons from the convictions of the most famous American presidents

6. There is no substitute for personality.
Whether it was Kennedy softening reporters with his easygoing humor, or Ronald Reagan using his persuasiveness to get politics through Congress, their charisma was key to their success. "It doesn't matter what the message is – FDR's message of more government aid was diametrically opposed to Reagan's philosophy of taking government off the back of the people – as long as it is delivered with wit, charm and a sense of integrity," says Perry.

Lesson for entrepreneurs: no matter what you do, your personal attractiveness can be as important as quality and price when closing the sale. "In addition to selling their policies, these presidents could sell themselves," says Perry. "The same goes for entrepreneurs."

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