What can communication professionals learn from General Patton?
While never one for subtlety, the American World War Two hero certainly understood the value of knowing your audience…
General Patton’s speech to the Third Army shortly before D-Day is regarded as one of most inspirational speeches of all time. Yet it’s far from a thing of beauty – rather a hard, gritty speech meant for soldiers about to risk their lives.
The speech begins as follows:
“No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”
Strong opening? Check! Patton was signalling this was not going to be another cliché-heavy, lyrical call to arms. He went on:
“I don’t give a f*** for a man who is not always on his toes. There are four hundred neatly marked graves in Sicily, all because one man went to sleep on the job. But they are enemy graves, because we caught the bastard asleep before his officer did.”
Here, the usual fear-based threat had been turned upside down. War is simple, Patton implied; kill or be killed. And this was meant as grown-up advice on how to get through to the other side safely. He continued:
“Sure, we all want to go home. And the shortest way home is through Berlin and Tokyo. I don’t want any messages saying ‘I’m holding my position’. We’re advancing constantly and we’re not interested in holding anything except for the enemy’s balls.”
Towards the end of the speech, he acknowledges his own reputation for hard leadership and uses it to show how it will save lives.
“There will be some complaints that we’re pushing our people too hard. I don’t give a damn about such complaints. I believe that an ounce of sweat will save a gallon of blood. The harder we push, the more enemies we kill. The more enemies we kill, the fewer of our men will be killed. Pushing harder means fewer casualties. I want you all to remember that.”
After the speech, Patton’s Third Army sliced through Europe at top speed – liberating Europe while sustaining one of the lowest casualty rates of all the allied forces.
In an off-the-record interview about the famous speech, Patton explained why he had used the language he had used:
“When I want my men to remember something important, to really make it stick, I give it to them dirty. It may not sound nice to a bunch of little old ladies at a tea party, but it helps my soldiers remember it. You can’t run an army without profanity, but it has to be eloquent profanity. An army without profanity couldn’t fight its way out of a piss-soaked paper bag.”
Above all, Patton understood his men – their hopes, needs and motivations – and he tailored his language and tone of voice accordingly. Patton understood that, while the speech might offend regular people in comfortable everyday surroundings, it would trigger something in a group of twenty-somethings facing a life-or-death struggle to liberate Europe. Patton understood what many communication professionals would do well to remember: that you must always know your audience.