In watching the recent U.S. presidential inauguration, I couldn’t help but notice 22-year-old poet Amanda Gorman.
I think her poem recitation and public speaking performance serves as an example of many concepts I’ve taught in my writing over the years.
I had never heard of Amanda Gorman before hearing her speak, so I had zero expectations of what she might say. Her poem recitation reminded me of the incredible power of gravitas from the stage — a few hundred words delivered in a particular way can connect with hundreds of millions of people.
From a career standpoint, it certainly doesn’t hurt to share the stage with the President of the United States, Lady Gaga, and Jennifer Lopez. Part of your gravitas comes from the company you keep (or are perceived as keeping).
After her poem, I discovered that Gorman is a recent Harvard graduate (class of 2020).
I’m sure Gorman was thrilled to be the youngest poet to speak at a presidential inauguration.
You know who else was thrilled?
The person on the admissions committee who decided to accept her into Harvard University based on her application as a 16-year-old.
That person is thinking to themselves, “Damn… I’m good at spotting talent early.”
From time to time, I’m asked how to get into schools like Harvard (typically for Harvard Business School more so than undergrad). The principle is the same. Harvard is not looking for the best students to admit. They are looking for the best “future alumni” to admit as students.
So, when you apply to an elite university, you want to convey the idea that “Hey... I’m going to do amazing things with my life, and when I do, I can say that I graduated from your university.”
You get into an elite university in part based on the perception of your career trajectory.
The thing about things like gravitas, perceived peer group, and career trajectory is that they have momentum.
Gorman’s book of poetry skyrocketed to the #1 bestseller on Amazon.
She will most certainly be offered one or more book deals based on her exposure at the inauguration and verified book sales on Amazon.
A book deal secures distribution for her work to multiple sales channels with enhanced reach to her target audience.
What’s clear to me is that the inauguration will not be the last time you’ll hear of Amanda Gorman.
Click Here for the video and transcript of Gorman’s poem from Harvard’s website… Did I mention that Harvard is thrilled to call Gorman an alumna?
When I listened to her poem, I saw her do a masterful job in weaving together multiple themes and common points of interest from across the political spectrum.
First was her choice of title for her poem, “The Hill We Climb.”
It reminded me of a reference that former President Ronald Reagan made in a speech in 1989 about the United States being a “Shining City Upon a Hill.” (Click Here to see it.) Reagan was a Republican President.
The city upon the hill refers to the idea of America being a great country, looked up to on the global stage.
Supporters of former President Donald Trump really resonated with the concept “Make America Great Again.”
Although Reagan and Trump likely had different ideas of what has made, makes, or could make America great, I thought Gorman was clever to embrace that concept in a way that was inclusive of those on the left side of the political spectrum.
She did so by delicately weaving and integrating several disparate, and often polarizing, ideas together.
For all her eloquence and artistry, it’s worth pointing out that Gorman is very much selling an idea. She is, after all, a political activist.
However, how she advocates her ideas utilizes many of the concepts that I’ve taught in my classes on Gravitas, How to Sell Your Ideas, and Emotional Intelligence (EQ).
Let me point out the specifics.
For starters, she argues we aren’t currently at the top of the hill; we still have to climb the hill — there’s more work to be done.
When Americans are more polarized and divided than at any other point in my lifetime, it is possible to create a better version of America in the future than exists today.
I think this is what everybody wants.
(Yes, there is major disagreement about what’s wrong, how one defines a better future, and how best to get there; but fundamentally, nobody wants an America that’s worse in the future than it is today.)
This is an intricate attempt to find common ground. (Not at all easy to do in 2021!)
At the same time, Gorman is a political activist. She is advocating a point of view. Her poem isn’t just literature spoken out loud. It is also very much an attempt at persuasion.
I have often said that leading others is also selling others on your ideas.
To be blunt, Gorman, in all her eloquence and artistry, is also very much selling an idea.
In addition to arguing that there is more work to be done, she also argues “...being American is more than a pride we inherit — it’s the past we step into and how we repair it.”
She doesn’t say pride in the past is wrong.
She embraces and then extends the idea. It’s pride in the past and it’s repairing the past too. It’s not one or the other… it’s both.
This is an example of a sales technique I call pace, pace, lead.
This is where you start off your persuasive argument by agreeing with the person you’re trying to persuade.
She argues: Yes, let’s make America great again… let’s get the country to the top of the hill. (This is the “pace” part of her argument where she agrees with those on the political right, which is opposite her own).
“We are striving to… compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters, and conditions of man.”
Yes, by all means, let’s Make America Great… for everyone. (The “for everyone” is the “lead” part… it is part of her reframe.)
This is an example of co-opting.
As I mentioned in my How to Sell and Gravitas programs, one effective way to persuade someone (like your CEO) is to quote their own words back to them while trying to sell them on an idea.
For example, before the pandemic, when my teenager wanted to go to a friend’s house for the weekend, she said, “Dad, you said that I should spend less time on my phone and more time face-to-face with people.”
The thing with hearing your own words quoted back to you is it’s really hard to argue against your own brilliant thoughts!
So Gorman says, yes, by all means, let's Make America Great… for everyone.
At the same time, she recognizes that for those on the left side of the political spectrum, the words Make America Great Again have many negative connotations. So rather than use these words directly, she goes back to the words popularized by Ronald Reagan (a member of the conservative right) and quotes his words about the “city upon a hill” (admired by the world over).
What incredible emotional intelligence to recognize her two extremely disparate audiences and try to weave together a message that lands just right.
I love how Gorman ends her poem.
"For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it...”
Yes, there is hope for a better future, but we have to have the courage to notice it.
“...if only we’re brave enough to be it.”
And rather than blame others for the darkness, she argues we need to be brave enough to be the better future we seek.
I see this as yet another sales message to shift from putting our energy into blaming one another for what’s wrong with the country to looking to ourselves to be a part of the better future we seek.
Don’t spend all your energy blaming your neighbor for the country’s woes. Have the courage to be a better neighbor instead.
Given the impossibly difficult task to bridge a country divided, I thought Gorman did a masterful job. Did it pull everyone in the country together? I doubt it. Did she deliver an attempt that was more graceful than 99.999% of Americans could have done? Yes, absolutely.
If you want a case study in how to sell, flex one’s gravitas, utilize intellect to tie together disparate ideas, and have the emotional intelligence to choose your words very deliberately, it’s worth studying the transcript of her poem.
To see the video recording of her poem recitation and read the transcript, Click Here.