Monday, August 9, 2010

The power of brief speeches: World War I and the Four Minute Men

Imagine you were telling your grandfather about those nifty new, brief presentation formats like Ignite, Pecha Kucha, and Lightning Talks. You enthusiastically described how wonderful it was for speakers to be able to get to the point in only 5 to 7 minutes (possibly with precisely 20 PowerPoint slides).

He then would turn to you, sneer, and ask why it took you guys so darned long! Back during World War I (1917 and 1918) his uncle used to speak about patriotic topics for just four minutes at intermissions in movie theaters. This was before commercial radio broadcasting even existed.

Projectionists took four minutes to change films, so he and the other volunteer speakers to those large captive audiences were simply known as the Four Minute Men. (Of course the name also was meant to recall the Minute Men back during the American Revolution). They used just one or two slides. The entire program cost the government just $102,000.

Those volunteers were an important part of the Committee on Public Information, a federal propaganda agency run by a journalist named George Creel. During the war there were about 75,000 Four Minute Men, who gave an estimated 755,000 speeches to a total audience of 314 million people. The average audience was 416 people. On the average everyone in the US got to hear 3 speeches.

The idea for the Four Minute Men began with a group of Chicago businessmen shortly before the US declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. The very first speech was given by Donald M. Ryerson around April 1st in the 1470 seat Strand Theater, downtown. Mr. Ryerson was a Yale graduate in his early thirties who had worked in his family’s metal supply business, Joseph T. Ryerson and Son.

On April 13th President Wilson issued an executive order establishing a Committee on Public Information. Donald Ryerson went to Washington two days later. In ten minutes he explained the idea to Mr. Creel, who initially put him in charge of making the Four Minute Men into a national organization. Ryerson even trademarked the name of the organization. He left for naval officer training in June, and William McCormick Blair took over. They created a structure with a hierarchy of state and local branches.

By June 18 the Four Minute Men had been recognized on behalf of the Treasury Department, the Food Administration, and the American Red Cross War Council. Even more importantly, early in July the executive council of the motion picture industry recognized them as the only authorized agents speaking for the US government in the motion-picture theaters of the country. The introductory slide their speakers used to establish credibility looked like this:

A series of bulletins and newsletters were printed and mailed out to the organization. Bulletin C contained the following advice:

“...In selecting men for speakers try to secure men with various neighborhood or business contacts, who will be acceptable in appearance and general standing to the audiences, and on whom you can depend with reasonable certainty for forceful and accurate presentation of the subject.

Well-known speakers are too accustomed to longer speeches, with room for anecdotes and the introduction, and should be avoided for this service in favor of young lawyers and business men who will present messages within the four-minute limit rather than originate speeches.”

One issue of The Four Minute Men News contained the following exposition about speech delivery. It was written by by Samuel Hopkins Adams, a journalist whose muckraking articles about patent medicines in Colliers magazine led to the Pure Food Act of 1906. Mr. Adams advice sounds quite contemporary:

“Stick to your time allowance. Five minutes means a guess; four minutes makes a promise.

Begin with a positive, concrete statement. Tell them something at the start.

Use short sentences. The man who can’t make one word do the work of two is no four-minute speaker.

Avoid fine phrases. You aren’t there to give them an ear full but a mind full.

Talk to the back row of your audience; you’ll hit everything closer in.

Talk to the simplest intelligence in your audience; you’’ll hit everything higher up.

Be natural and direct. Sincerity wears no frills.

Give your words time. A jumbled sentence is a wasted sentence. You can’t afford waste on a four-minute allowance.

Don’t fear to be colloquial. Slang that your hearers understand is better than Latin that they don’t.

Don’t figure the importance of your job on a time basis. Four hours of thinking may go into four minutes of speaking.

You represent the United States of America. Don’t forget it. And don’t give your audience occasion to forget it.

Finish strong and sharp. The butterfly is forgotten as soon as he departs, but you recall the hornet because he ends with a point.

Finally, and always - Stick to your pledge and the four minute limit.”

The first subject addressed by the Four Minute Men was “Universal Service by Selective Draft.” Then came the four Liberty Loan campaigns in June 1917, October 1917, April 1918, and October 1918, and the Victory Loan Campaign. Other early speech subjects (before October 1917) included Red Cross, Organization, Food Conservation, Why We Are Fighting, The Nation In Arms, The Importance of Speed, What Our Enemy Really Is, and Unmasking German Propaganda.

Donald Ryerson, the very first “Four Minute Man,” survived the war. In 1928 he became chairman of the business begun by his grandfather, and led it into the Great Depression. Sadly he did not live to a ripe old age. On May 8, 1932, in the aftermath of a nervous breakdown due to overwork, he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was only 47. A few years later the Ryerson company was bought by Inland Steel. Ryerson still exists and its successor still sells metals.

There was a 16-page article about the Four-Minute Men in the February 1939 issue of The Quarterly Journal of Speech. Their story also has been told in more detail in a book by Alfred E. Cornebise called WAR AS ADVERTISED: The Four Minute Men and America’s Crusade 1917-1918. Briefer accounts appear on the web here, here, and here.


Anonymous said...

My Grandfather was a 4 minute man volunteer- we have a collection of the newsletters from Washington sent to them. He spoke on What it Means to be an American and was picked to read President Wilson's address for the 4th Liberty Loan on October 18th.

Anonymous said...

Are there any archives where one can actually read these speeches?

Richard I. Garber said...

I don’t know if there were any transcripts out on the web anywhere. Four years later I also don’t remember if they were shown or referenced in Alfred E. Cornebise’s book.

At the end of a follow-up post on Four-minute men, three-minute women, and one-upsmanship I mentioned a long scholarly article by Lisa Mastrangelo in the Winter 2009 issue of Rhetoric & Public Affairs. There were other follow-up articles in the Summer 2010 issue that might lead you to more information.