William Safire and the Art of Persuasion

New York Times columnist William Safire died on Sunday after a battle with pancreatic cancer. I knew of him but was not very well informed about his long career as a communications pro.

That might seem like an odd term for Safire, who is most recently remembered as a conservative columnist and defender of intelligent usage of the English language. But I learned a lot more about Safire in the few minutes it took to read one of the many articles published in recent days. He was, indeed, a pro who practiced the art of persuasion in a variety of settings throughout a long career, including journalism, advertising, public relations and politics.

Surprisingly, Safire was a college dropout (Syracuse University) who entered journalism and worked in all media, including TV in its early days. I didn’t realize Safire had a career in public relations, and was working in the field when Richard Nixon asked him to join Nixon’s 1960 campaign for president, which Nixon lost to John F. Kennedy.

Later, when Nixon won the 1968 election, Safire sold his advertising and PR agency and went to work as a speechwriter. He became a columnist after leaving the Nixon administration and won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1978.

In the article I read, Safire said, if I remember correctly, that it’s critical to start with a bang and systematically support your argument or point of view throughout your piece, whatever form it takes. He also mentioned the power of the anecdote. A memorable story that illustrates your idea or point is a strong lever for winning arguments, hearts and minds.

Safire enjoyed considerable success across many communications and media platforms. I was impressed by his accomplishments and can apply his nuggets to marketing communications, social media and other communications.


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