Friday, November 21, 2014

Famous Speech Friday: Ida Tarbell's 1916 "Industrial idealism"

Imagine that you're a prize-winning journalist, one who has brought corporate titans to their knees with your investigations, and whose books are best-sellers. Your name is a household word in America. Your credibility and popularity are high. The speakers' bureau advertising you on the lecture circuit says "there is no name which speaks more eloquently of careful and painstaking research, keen analysis, open mindedness, fairness and constructiveness, than does the name of Ida M. Tarbell."

And then one of the groups you address on that tour describes you as "the woman who talks like a man."

"Tarbell was invited to speak at numerous colleges, clubs and law schools. Members of the Twentieth Century Club were reportedly enthralled to hear 'the woman who talks like a man'," wrote Doris Kearns Goodwin in The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, noting Tarbell's popularity on the speaker circuit after her exposé of Standard Oil. 

Readers of the blog know well that negating the gender and sexuality of women speakers--labeling them as men, as neuters or as androgynes--has been going on since the first century in Rome, and continues to this day. This was a period in American history when few women spoke on the popular public-speaking circuits of the day. When they did speak, they primarily spoke about temperance, anti-war messages, religion or the home. And I'm told by historian friends that Tarbell very well may have appreciated that backhanded compliment. She didn't like it when, as she sometimes put it, her "petticoats" got in the way of her progress. Whether her audience saw it the same way is up for debate.

It's possible Tarbell was influenced as a speaker from her time as a reporter for The Daily Chautauquan, supplement for home study courses based on the Chautauqua Institution, a summer festival of public speakers in New York state that continues today--in a sense, the original TED conference, except with thousands of speakers. It was her first professional writing job, and Tarbell said of it,“I was glad to be useful, for I had grown up with what was called the Chautauqua movement.” She spoke at Chautauqua twice in the summer of 1917, bringing her career full circle as a speaker.

Around 1916, she was on the speaker circuit, represented by the Affiliated Lyceum Bureaus of America, speaking on issues surrounding World War I, with a focus on the home front and her specialty, scrutiny of industrial practices. (Here's a letter to her about her speaker expenses from one of the lyceum bureaus booking her in the midwest.) The back page of this brochure calls the speech "Industrial Idealism," and says Tarbell summed up the situation in America in that day as "A peaceful nation unprepared for peace!"

It's based on The Golden Rule in Business (jump to page 34 at the link), a story from the American Magazine, which she founded and edited. The central idea is that applying the "golden rule" of "do unto others as you would have others do unto you" was being applied as simply "good business" by the heads of "certain industries." It's a look at the advent of worker safety as a new assumption in doing business.

The brochure gives us the only text I could find from this speech:
We must organize men and women for labor as if for war. Watch the perfection of the training and the movement of the masses that at this moment are meeting in unspeakable, infernal slaughter in Europe. See how the humblest is fitted to his task. With what ease great bodies wheel, turn, advance, retreat. Consider how, after standing men in line that they may be knocked to pieces, they promptly and scientifically collect such as have escaped, both friend and foe, and (oh, amazing and heart-breaking human logic!) under the safe sign of the cross, tenderly nurse them back to health.
If this can be done for War, should we do less for Peace? 
What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Use active verbs to make your speech powerful: "...great bodies wheel, turn, advance, retreat" is a sentence packed with active verbs. Here, Tarbell's experience as a writer came in handy, but you can get the same effect by editing your speech drafts to eliminate "to be" and other passive verb constructions. Many speakers fall into passive constructions as a way of hedging their opinions, and the result is a speech without opinions, but also lacking in power and impact.
  • Give your audience invisible visuals and a piece of the action: Tarbell's descriptions bring alive the fields of war in Europe, creating the invisible visuals or pictures in the mind's eye that stay with an audience long after the talk is over. But she doesn't just describe the aspects of war that work in peacetime--she puts the audience into the action, urging listeners to "watch...see...consider" and play an active if imaginary role in the story she's telling. It's a good persuasive technique as well.
  • Use questions to press your argument: A time-honored tool of rhetoric is the rhetorical question. By asking "If this can be done for War, should we do less for Peace?" Tarbell is challenging her audience with her own contention and opinion, and using the question to press it forward. She does so in part because her premise--that workers deserve safety, and that it helps business--was one met with skepticism by workers and industrialists alike. 
I wish I had a full text or audio for this speech, but you can read a draft commencement speech from this era found among her papers, intended for the class of 1913 at Allegheny College. I'm delighted that Allegheny College, the Chautauqua Daily and the University of Iowa Libraries could make available the documents about her speaking tour, giving us a fuller picture of the early 20th century lecture circuit and Tarbell's speaking.

(Images copyrighted by The University of Iowa. Used by permission.)

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