It is wonderful what strength of purpose and boldness and energy of will are ROUSED by the assurance that we are doing our duty.
- Walter Scott
If you observe the happiest, most effective, most energetic people, you will invariably find they have given themselves over to a higher cause. We want to feel part of something bigger than ourselves, something important, as if we’re on a quest and that our contribution matters. On the flip side, when our lives feel devoid of meaning, directionless, pointless, we begin to drift. I know I am never less happy than when I can’t see any point in what I’m doing, can’t see how it fits into a grander narrative. In short, human beings seek purpose – the fourth element of inspiration.
Purpose is tricky. It is extremely, critically, almost ultimately important – but also fiendishly difficult to find. I myself have often struggled to find a deep sense of purpose and meaningfulness in my life, swinging into periodic bouts of mild misery as I ask the question why on earth am I doing this? Some people seem blessed to have found precisely what their talents are suited for, and are in the lucky position to pursue their purpose wherever it leads, faces shining and passion firing all the way. The rest of us make do with periodic glimpses of the sunlight through the clouds.
Nevertheless, if you truly wish to inspire people to act, you have to fill them with a sense of purpose. If you want to rouse people’s boldness and energy of will, you have to give them the assurance that they are doing their duty. And the key to achieving this is storytelling. If you can tell a gripping story of great import, and place your audience as essential actors in the story - only you can save humankind! - you can give people a powerful sense of purpose.
Watch how President Obama inspired students at George Mason University with a sense of purpose during his first Presidential campaign in 2007:
Obama does three things here. First, he links his campaign to another historic campaign, Martin Luther King’s fight for civil rights. Second, he weaves a grand narrative of the “moral arc of the universe”. Third, he puts the students into that narrative, showing what role they have to play. Just like Gandalf explaining the significance of the One Ring to Frodo, Obama sets up a quest of enormous importance and puts the students in the role of the hero, thus giving them a sense of purpose (and then does an exquisite bit of empowerment, the seventh element of inspiration). Finally, Obama’s conviction – evident in the passion with which he speaks – demonstrates that he feels filled with purpose, a characteristic which often promotes a feeling of purpose in others.
Mirror Historic Moments
By hearkening back to MLK’s part in the struggle for civil rights Obama immediately invests the current moment with significance. He doesn’t claim that the potential for his election is as significant as the Civil Rights struggle, but he doesn’t have to – merely by drawing the parallel (which he does not just by using MLK’s quote but by also describing the context in which it was said) some of the potency of that moment “rubs off” on the time in which Obama is speaking. And the more significant a moment seems the more likely it is to appear purposeful, too.
Weave a Grand Narrative
Obama quotes MLK (who was himself paraphrasing Unitarian minister Theodore Parker):
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
This is an exquisite example of a grand narrative: a major story which the students in the audience can be a part of. What could possibly be a greater quest than following the curve of the “arc of the moral universe“? This is not just an election, Obama seems to be claiming. Rather, it is part of a cosmic process, a bigger plan – a plan you can be a part of too. Wow: that’s some purpose.
In a similar way, even with quite mundane appeals, we can find ways to paint on a larger canvas. If you can uncover the deep values beneath your call to action - what’s really at stake - and bring them to the surface, you can often make your call seem far more purposeful, invested with greater significance.
Make Your Audience the Hero
Crucially, Obama makes it clear how the students in his audience can play an important role in the grand narrative he weaves. He tells them what their purpose is:
Here’s the thing George Mason, here’s the thing young people: it doesn’t bend on its own. It bends because you put your hand on that arc and you bend it in the direction of justice.
The students’ role, Obama claims, is not just to follow the arc of the moral universe but to bend it. And, because they are the ones who have to do it (as he reiterates again and again – a good example of personal necessity) the call to action is extremely potent.
Finally, Obama demonstrates his own sense of purpose through his forceful conviction. Much of this sense is conveyed through his delivery (a matter for later posts), but one technique he uses is to stress his certainly:
If you all grab that arc then I have no doubt…[pause]…I have absolutely no doubt that, regardless of what happens in this Presidential year…America will transform itself
You have to be careful with certainty: always be genuine and truthful in your pronouncements. But, however you convey it, conveying conviction is extremely important to engender a sense of purpose in your audience.
People often feel inspired to act because they feel a sense of purpose, as if they are part of something bigger than themselves. You can help engender such a sense in your audience by hearkening back to similar historic moments and parallel struggles; by weaving a grand narrative – a quest – for your audience to be a part of; by making your audience the hero of the quest, playing a critical role; and by conveying your own conviction and commitment to the cause.
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