In 1895, Booker T. Washington delivered a speech before the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta that later came to be known as the “Atlanta Compromise.” His address was one of the most important and influential speeches in American history, establishing Washington as one of the leading black spokesmen in America.
In the speech, he tells this story:
A ship lost at sea for many days suddenly sighted a friendly vessel. From the mast of the unfortunate vessel was seen a signal: “Water, water. We die of thirst.” The answer from the friendly vessel at once came back: “Cast down your bucket where you are.” A second time, the signal, “Water, send us water!” went up from the distressed vessel. And was answered: “Cast down your bucket where you are.” A third and fourth signal for water was answered: “Cast down your bucket where you are.” The captain of the distressed vessel, at last heeding the injunction, cast down his bucket and it came up full of fresh, sparkling water from the mouth of the Amazon River.
Often times we are dissatisfied with some aspect of our lives; we keep looking for an opportunity to make our lives better elsewhere. Perhaps we simply need to “let down our buckets were we are.”
A dear friend of mine in his eighties, Clancy, fought in the Battle of the Bulge during the winter months of 1944-1945. Recently, he recounted for me his several weeks on the front lines of that famous battle.
He told about his company pushing forward in a forest area to attack the enemy. He recalled the constant bombing that he and his fellow soldiers were exposed to. They never knew when the bombs were coming and had no idea where they would explode. The constant noise was deafening. The cold temperatures were numbing and made it hard to pull the trigger on his rifle. Sometimes he saw individual soldiers he was shooting and sometimes he just aimed and shot, hoping to secure his own safety.
Foxholes were the only source of protection and that was minimal. The enemy had concrete bunkers, which were difficult to penetrate so our troops always felt that they were at a disadvantage.
The most telling exchange with Clancy was his lack of specificity about some of the events. For example, he did not remember even an estimate of the casualties among the 500 men who were fighting in his particular part of the battle field. His response was simply, “Most of the soldiers.” He did not recall in specific details any of the many close calls with death he experienced.
He was vague about how they survived the cold temperatures, lack of living quarters, the constant barrage of enemy fire, and the poor sanitary conditions. As he was pausing to consider these kinds of questions, his daughter who was listening said, “Dad, do you still have nightmares about it?” His pause followed by a simple “Yes” after sixty-seven years was a quiet tribute to the horrors of the war.
The human mind is able to shut out the horrific and couch the memories in general terms. There were 81,000 American casualties in the forests of Belgium during that battle. Clancy’s story is a reminder of the debt we owe the men, often very young, who fought in this battle that was the turning point in the war.
On May 28, 1977, the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire killed 167 people. Located seven miles south of Cincinnati on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, Beverly Hills was a very popular entertainment venue. On that night the supper club was overcrowded with the star attraction being John Davidson.
Shortly before Davidson took the stage and during the warm up act, smoke was noted under some doors by employees. A bus boy, Walter Bailey, got up on stage and took the microphone away from the two comedians who were performing in the Cabaret Room and told the packed audience that there was a fire and they needed to leave immediately.
No one moved because they thought he was part of the act or could not imagine this was serious since it was such a festive occasion. Precious seconds were lost before the audience truly assimilated the seriousness of the message. This was a listening problem. More lives were lost because people did not move quickly enough after the announcement.
Don’t allow a context affect your willingness to listen. Learn to pay attention in all kinds of environments.
Many unbelievable events have accompanied the Indianapolis 500 over the years, but it would be hard to top what happened on lap 120 during the 1985 race. After coming out of turn two, Danny Sullivan passed Mario Andretti and in the process went into a spin that should have caused him to hit the wall. Somehow, whether skill, divine guidance, luck, or serendipity, he spun around—yes, 360 degrees—at 220 miles per hour with Andretti’s car just a few feet behind. The crowd, as you can imagine, could not believe what they had just witnessed. Nothing like that had ever happened before. The video of the event has been shown countless times.
You would think that Sullivan would not take such a chance on lap 120 with 80 more laps to go. He said later that he thought there were just l2 laps left.
He lost the lead, but after stopping in the pits for a complete change of tires he eventually passed Andretti late in the race and won that race by 2.5 seconds over Andretti.But it was the spin to win on lap 120 that elevated Danny Sullivan into auto racing history for one of the most amazing feats of any race driver.
Have you seen an amazing feat in racing? How would you apply this story to make a point?
The following story is good to tell if you are discussing the importance of limiting your speaking time when delivering a presentation. We are very time- conscious in our culture and as a speaker you want to know how much time you have to speak. Staying within that time limit or perhaps even stopping a couple of minutes under the allotted time enhances your credibility.
The shortest presidency was that of William Henry Harrison who was elected in 1840. He delivered the longest inaugural address of any president—nearly two hours long. Unfortunately, he was not dressed for the cold and rain of March and came down with a cold. He became progressively ill and died on April 4, 1841, due to complications of pneumonia. His presidency lasted only 32 days. One might say he talked himself to death!
You could certainly add more detail if you needed to, but the brevity allows you to stress the point simply, humorously, and then move on.
The value of the historical example is that it gives your idea legitimacy and credibility and shows you can apply your expertise to other environments to make your point. As you read, look for events which you might develop into a historical story.
My favorite candy is the Charms Blow Pop. Maybe I enjoy the candy so much because there is a bubble gum center and I enjoy chewing the gum after eating the hard candy surface. In fact, my family is so aware of this that one of the gifts my wife gave me for my fiftieth birthday was 50 Blow Pops.
Someone in South America had the bright idea of putting two treats together—candy and bubble gum—to create a unique sweet dessert. In 1968 the Charms Company in Bloomfield, New Jersey, heard of this and thought it would be a good idea here in the States.
They began experimenting with that idea, came up with a lollipop, and called it the Blow Pop. The pop was an immediate success. Even with the plant running 24 hours a day, seven days a week; they could not make enough of the lollipops. In 1972 the company acquired another plant in Covington, Tennessee. The old process of making the Blow Pop was all by hand. They had to cook a batch of the bubble gum, spin it, and then mold the candy around it. Now the process is totally automated and the plant in Covington produces over one billion Blow Pops a year.
Blow Pops take time to devour and thus the enjoyment is much longer than a regular piece of candy. Sucking on the candy and then chewing the bubble gum are great ways to stay awake while driving home late at night. But of course any time is a good time to enjoy a Blow Pop!
The Blow Pop is a great example of what happens when you take two completely unrelated common entities and put them together to produce a unique experience.