Since the new documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” about Fred Rogers came out earlier this year, there has been a well-deserved resurgence of interest in him, his PBS Television Show (Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) and the many topics he addressed. Numerous articles have been written about the ways we can learn from him, be better leaders and better people. His kindness was palpable.
He enjoyed a long and successful career in television, with the U.S. debut of his show in 1968, aired on NET and then its successor, PBS, until August 2001. Thirty-three years. He was the master of being quietly effective. He was not brash. He was not bold. But…he was powerful.
What was it about Fred Rogers that made him so effective and able to connect? We see him testifying during the Senate hearings on Public Television (and trying to save the $20 million to keep it alive…in today’s dollars being about $140 million). He masterfully connects with Senator John Pastore who is leading the hearings. We watch the transformation of Pastore’s face move from one of cynicism to one of delight and he even admits to Fred Rogers that he gave him “goose bumps” during his testimony.
An excerpt of Fred Roger’s testimony “This is what I give. I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, “You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.”
And, oh he does save the funding…his testimony is what did it (Strachan, 2017).
What was it about the way in which Rogers communicated that made him so convincing? Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University and author stated, “Everything that is said must be said in a certain way—in a certain tone of voice, at a certain rate of speed, and with a certain degree of loudness. Whereas often we consciously consider what to say before speaking, we rarely think about how to say it” (Tannen, 1996). This was not lost on Fred Rogers.
Reflecting on him and looking beyond the messages of what he said, there are five truths about the way in which he communicated… the “how” he communicated that each of us can learn from. Naturally, there is much more we can learn from him, but these provide some essentials for our consideration.
Simplicity. Focus. Precision. Tone. Cadence.
Simplicity: Fred Rogers understood the value of using simple words. They needed to be able to be understood by his audience, which was largely children between the ages of two to five years old, although many older people watched his show. Einstein said it so well, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” Rogers lived by this.
Focus: Whether he was talking about divorce or the death of a pet, Fred Rogers had a razor sharp finely tuned focus of what his message was about. He developed skits, songs and his supporting characters whether they were puppets or people, were all in sync with this focus. He never strayed.
Precision: His words, while focused and simple were also precise. The choices he made in the words he used were carefully considered. He was not vague in the nouns he chose, he avoided using unnecessary verbs and each word supported the message. He was intentional without being studied or contrived.
Tone: The tone we use tells the truth even when our words don’t, even when we’re unaware of that truth ourselves. It is our tone to which others respond (Lickerman, 2010). Tone is an essential part of Roger’s success as a communicator. Albert Mehrabian Professor Emeritus of Psychology, UCLA, identified tone as one of the most vital elements of successful communication (2015, Davies) Tone influences how people interpret our words. Importantly, Fred Rogers had a consistent tone…it was even. It was warm. It was gentle.
Cadence. One of the fundamentals when communicating is the pace of speech. Too fast and others don’t grasp what you are saying…too slow and they lose interest. Fred Rogers was able to capitalize on his pacing which allowed his audience to hear each of his words and make them want to listen and embrace them.
Fred Rogers was a constant in an ever-changing world. We could count on him….without him being predictable. He was genuine, and his shows were always imaginative. He was convincing without having to convince. As he once said “As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has–or ever will have–something inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.”
Thank you, Fred Rogers, for letting us be part of your neighborhood. You are still teaching us.
Jacqueline Strayer is a faculty member in graduate and executive programs at NYU and Columbia and a former officer of three global publicly traded companies. She teaches and consults on a wide range of topics in public relations, brand, marketing and leadership. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jfstrayer.
Davies, T. “The Importance of Tone of Voice and why you should get it Right.” Pixus Blog.
Lickerman, A. (2010). “The Importance of Tone”. Psychology Today.
Strachan, M. (2017. “The Best Argument for Saving Public Media was by Mr. Rogers in 1969”. Huffington Post.
Tannen, D. (1996). “The Power of Talk: Who gets heard and Why.” Harvard Business Review.
Copyright 2018. Jacqueline Strayer. All rights reserved.