The Greek philosopher Socrates was charged with “corrupting youth,” and he was sentenced to death by hemlock. But today he’s regarded as one of the giants in Western philosophy and a forefather of the scientific method. We’re probably not willing to wait that long for a payoff, but you get the idea.
Speed ahead a couple of millennia to Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, delivered in the middle of the Civil War. Today, it’s regarded as one of the greatest and most poignant presidential speeches of all time. But on Thursday, November 19, 1863, well, it was a total flop.
As one contemporary Chicago Times reviewer said: “The cheeks of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances.” Others were put off because it was so short – just over two minutes – at a time when flamboyant political oratory was popular entertainment (remember, no TV or Internet). That’s why speeches often went on for an hour or more.
While Lincoln was disappointed at the reaction, he did something about it – the first president to employ public relations techniques. He distributed the text to major newspapers around the nation and, as a result, positive media coverage helped change public perception. One reason: the public (and critics) had time to read it and think about its ideas in the larger context of the war and the country’s future.
Eventually, long speeches-as-entertainment went out of fashion, and the address slowly became recognized as a model of brilliant oratory. Lincoln was lauded for being able to get so many powerful ideas into such a SHORT and poetic speech – the goal of many contemporary writers.
Commentators and pundits today often defer to the will (and wisdom?) of crowds and their influence on public perception, which can change overnight in our uber-connected world. But crowds and experts aren’t always right. The key, as Lincoln showed, is not to give up believing that your product or idea is worthwhile, especially if you’re attempting to start a campaign that influences opinion.
No one needed public support more than Lincoln, who was hated by many during most of his presidency – from New England abolitionists who thought he was progressing too slowly to pro-Confederate factions in the border states. But he stuck to his beliefs with an inherent understanding of what we’d now call the long-term view.
What’s my point? If you’re trying to build a brand or persuade people about a new idea, don’t forget it takes patience and effort. Building a brand means building trust, and today that means seeking third-party validation, providing regular and relevant content to your audience, and cultivating a community of advocates.
Sometimes it just takes time.