How Fred Rodgers Saved Public Television with a Six Minute Speech

“On May 1, 1969, Fred Rogers, host of the (then) recently nationally syndicated children’s television series, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (named Misterogers’ Neighborhood at the time), testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce Subcommittee on Communications to defend $20 million in federal funding proposed for the newly formed non-profit Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which was at risk of being reduced to $10 million. The subcommittee chairman, Senator John Pastore (D-RI), unfamiliar with Fred Rogers, is initially abrasive toward him. Over the course of Rogers’ 6 minutes of testimony, Pastore’s demeanor gradually transitions to one of awe and admiration as Rogers speaks.  Eventually, Pastore is won over, and the CPB is awarded its full funding.” – Daniel Deibler

The question is, how did he do it?  I think there are six things that Mr. Rodgers does that makes this one of the best speeches I’ve ever seen:

  1. He speaks from a clear, logical set of points, centered around a simple argument – that public television can be used to enhance a child’s emotional life, not hinder it.
  2. He centers his speech around a story; how he created Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood – and that story has a very clear beginning, middle, and an end.
  3. He makes fantastic contrasts – he compares what $6000 dollars could do for television; pay for one hour of quality children’s programming or two minutes of violent cartoons.
  4. He knows his audience – the senator he is speaking to was an advocate for educational television, and Fred Rodgers makes mention of it in his speech.
  5. He makes piercing eye contact – effective nonverbal communication enhances your impression with your audience, and it all starts with the eyes.
  6. He just really knows his shit – he can quote statistics about arcane budgeting tasks, but also snippets of songs he worked on months ago.

Ultimately what makes this speech work is compassion.  Fred Rodgers believed passionately in what he spoke about, so he had the energy and focus to do the hours of work necessary to put together this short speech.  And that passion shows through in his every gesture, his every word.  So, today,  think about what you care about before you begin speaking, and remember, if you keep in mind that every speech is an opportunity, you too can change the world.

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