What You Say When You Write An Order Or Command: Examples From History
by Gene Griessman, Ph.D.
The name Zachary Taylor will not be found on any list of great American communicators. But if U.S. Grant had anything to do with compiling the list, Taylor’s name would be one of the names at the top.
Zachary Taylor–the 12th President of the United States who became a war hero as general during the Mexican War–is scarcely thought of today for any reason. Yet Taylor was immensely popular in his day. Taylor’s communication style as described by Grant in his “Personal Memoirs” could serve as a guide for any high-ranking leader in the military, in business, or politics.
Here is the way Grant described the communication style of his old commanding general: “Taylor was not a conversationalist, but on paper he could put his meaning so plainly that there could be no mistaking it. He knew how to express what he wanted to say in the fewest well-chosen words, but would not sacrifice meaning to the construction of high-sounding sentences.”
Taylor became a kind of role model for General U.S. Grant who served under him as a lieutenant. By the time that Grant got to be a general, he had mastered his old commander’s communication style. In combat, he was a man of few words, but few ever misunderstood what those words meant.
All of Grant’s and Taylor’s written orders have been preserved, and are available for serious students of military communication. Here are two examples.
To General Halleck (military adviser to President Lincoln and senior coordinator of military affairs): “I want Sheridan to be put in command of all troops in the field, with instructions to put himself south of the enemy and follow him to the death. Wherever the enemy goes, there let our troops go also. It will neither be done nor attempted unless you watch it every day, and hour, and force it.” (quoted in William S. McFeely, “Grant,” p. 180)
To Secretary of War Stanton: “Every thing indicates the enemy are going to make a last and spasmodic effort to regain what they have lost and especially against Sherman. Troops should be got to Sherman as rapidly as his lines of communication will carry them…If Gen. Rosecrans does not send forward the regiments belonging to Sherman as ordered, arrest him by my order unless the President will authorize his being relieved from command altogether.” (quoted in William S. McFeely, “Grant,” p. 187)
You may not be a military leader, but whether you are or not, you can learn something from great military communicators. If you find yourself in a command-and-control situation, the communication style of Taylor and Grant are great models to study.
“High-sounding sentences” may have an important place in poetry, a political speech, or a sermon–where words are chosen for their beauty, the images that they evoke, and their emotional power. But when action is required, you must choose words that “there can be no mistaking” what they mean. This is a good rule not just for military writing, but for writing, period.
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