When senior managers lock themselves in a room to define a mission for their business, the example they’re often told to aim for is John Kennedy’s ‘Man on the Moon’ speech.
I’ve heard four separate consultants use this example and every one of them made the same mistake. They each identified the famous goal – ‘land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth’ – as coming from Kennedy’s speech about the space programme at Rice University, Texas in September 1962.
In fact, it came from a speech he made to Congress sixteen months earlier, the ninth item in a packed programme that also took in foreign policy, defence and the economy.
Why does this matter? Because it tells us three things:
First, that Kennedy and his advisors were smart enough to recognise when they were on to a winner.
Second, that the best way to establish an idea you’ve recognised as a winner is to keep talking about it.
And, third, that big ideas are all about meaning: people won’t remember the specific words you used, but they will remember how those words made them feel.
This is because your brain finds it a lot easier to remember things when they prompt an emotional response. A strong feeling of excitement, or pleasure, or humour, or sadness, releases dopamine into your brain – and this acts like a kind of mental post-it note, making it easy for your sub-conscious to access that memory.
What Kennedy did was to outline a bold, exciting, uplifting adventure – you can bet there was dopamine exploding in brains all over the country.
Millions of people heard Kennedy’s speech. Very few of them would have been able to remember a single one of the 2,207 words that went into it. They didn’t need to – they only needed to remember the gist.
When Kennedy later visited NASA’s Houston base to check on progress, he met a janitor who, replying to a question about what he did, said ‘Mr President, I’m helping to put a man on the moon’. That’s engagement.
Even tax-payers loved it – and he was telling them he was going to be spending a lot more of their money.
Would the audience have been so excited if Kennedy had said ‘our mission is to make NASA the pre-eminent global leader in aeronautical technology’? Or would they have preferred lower taxes?
Engaging people with your business is all about emotion and belief. If you get it right, it makes it easy for you to attract and motivate people who believe in what you believe in.