Learning from George Washington’s verbal and nonverbal communication skills

Coming off the fourth of July and recently finishing 1776 by David McCullough, I am inspired by the passion and leadership displayed by George Washington. That’s somewhat to be expected, right? But what I didn’t expect was Washington’s highly effective communications skills. In his service as General in the Revolutionary War, and later as the first President of the United States of America, Washington’s ability to integrate his roles as a leader, a patriot, and a communicator was a key driver of his accomplishments and his legacy – all of which helped to create America.

The Background
It is commonly known that George Washington did not want to be the General of the “rebel” American militia as the country sought freedom from Britain’s rule. However, in taking on the role, he did so wholeheartedly. During the Revolutionary War, even as battles were lost in succession, as hundreds of soldiers died of disease and wounds, as spirits sunk as low as they could possibly be, and as whole regiments left the army to give up the fight and return home, Washington’s commitment did not waiver; nor did the impact of his communications.

Effective Communication Lessons Learned
Here are a few lessons we can incorporate into developing our own effective communications skills. But before you read them and think “we’ll I’m not fighting a Revolutionary War or the president of an entirely new country, so they don’t apply to me” – think again. I would argue that most interactions start out small. Then, depending on how you handle them, they remain small or become turning points – for better or for worse. Washington didn’t have a plot script to navigate his communications – he did not know where the war or the country would end. But he did understand the ability of his words and actions to help shape a situation and advance an outcome. Take a look:

  • Vision – among desperation, it’s easy to forget why you are fighting for something. Washington never forgot. The ultimate goal was always America’s independence, and he reiterated this vision of America to his men and to Congress at every chance. When the Declaration of Independence was signed, he reinvigorated his wary troops by having the eloquent document read aloud in the streets, re-establishing their purpose and their reward of liberty should they succeed.
  • Comradery – (this is one of my favorites!) You might be surprised to learn that America’s differences in philosophies between the North and South existed even before we were officially a country. Washington was favored to lead the Continental Army (as it would come to be called) because of his diplomacy and ability to be relatable to both sides. Washington knew America would only win this battle if they were united in their cause.
  • Non-verbal communication – People who had never seen Washington before recognized him immediately when they saw his confident demeanor and appearance. He stood out among his troops not because he felt he was above them or apart from them (in fact, he was often on the battle field alongside them), but because he understood the need to be seen as their leader. His actions – beyond his words – commanded respect not just from his men, but equally important, from his enemy, who (initially) saw him as nothing more than the head of a group of rag-tag rebels.
  • Verbal communication – Notice this is the only example that deals with actual words. The other three drive the context, demeanor, and delivery of the message. Washington understood his audience(s) and he knew how to command them. He was well-spoken but also clever and poignant in his address. Washington let the weight of his words linger and used vision, comradery, and non-verbal communication to drive it home. By many accounts, when Washington spoke, men could not help but be affected.

The Take Aways
Whether it’s for clients, internal teams, or even just ourselves, Washington’s effective communications lessons go a long way. Commanding an audience, instilling your message, receiving buy-in from your team – these drive positive personal and professional outcomes through verbal and nonverbal communications. But they are not just for historical leaders in pivotal moments; they are for everyday leaders – like you and me. So get out there and give it a try!