On paper, it was no contest. The speakers list contained a short agenda of polished politicians and accomplished CEOs. And then, there was Jerry Readmond.
“I have but one wish right now, that my anti-depression pill would kick in,” said Readmond.
Those were his first words.
Former homeless veteran Jerry Readmond standing outside the historic Fort Snelling horse stables that will be converted into affordable housing for homeless veterans. (Photo by Rod Wermager)
Hardly the opening line of a master orator. And therein lies its simple genius—honesty.
Jerry Readmond is a former Vietnam War Marine who long ago stopped carrying a rifle and instead carried a burden. What the war didn’t break, inner demons did. He spent time walking and living on the streets of Minneapolis, another member in the national embarrassment called the homeless veterans club. If not for the Marine Corps instilling in him a life-long sense of pride and adaptability, Readmond admits he might not have survived.
That’s exactly why Readmond was added to the speakers list at the recent ground breaking for 58 new affordable apartments for homeless veterans at Fort Snelling. The fact that he’s a Marine gives him respect. His one-time homelessness gives him standing. Aristotle called it ethos, or credibility. But the pathos, or emotion was about to come from the soul.
“I don’t read from notes, because the heart can really never mess you up.” Readmond said.
He didn’t need notes. All he needed was a narrative, and his heart gave him one. Here are some of the excerpts:
“I asked Senator Hubert Humphrey one time, ‘Where does it start?’ And he shook my hand. And having been here today and witnessing this, it hit me. After all these years, it starts with a handshake. There have been many, many, many, many hands shook here.
“We can build all the buildings we want for our veterans, but I hope when we leave here you will think of this one word: Affordable. I’m in a place right now, I have my social security and I have my compensation from the V.A., the first and the fifteenth. My rent is going to be over a thousand dollars a month and I was homeless. I just want to be not a perfect example, but I like to be an example because I got my housing through HUD VASH [Housing & Urban Development - Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing]. That’s why I’m so passionate about this. It takes the honor and the courage and the strength of a warrior to ask for help, that’s why we have a hard time getting them in the door.
Jerry Readmond walking through the building that will be converted into affordable housing. (Photo by Rod Wermager)
“That’s what we’re all doing here. Martin Luther King, ‘I had a dream.’ And everybody that’s going to fill these halls and walk the grounds will able to say instead of living down by the river or under a bridge… every winter I just get scared. Really, really, really scared. How many are they going to find under a bridge or down by a river, or in the bush, dead because they froze to death.
“Now I know when Martin Luther King said, ‘I have a dream.’ And, for me it is my dream would be that we can fill as many of these buildings here as possible with affordable housing. That we can build affordable housing all over. When President Obama was first elected he said that he wanted to eliminate veteran homelessness. And I thought to myself one word and it was short: right. But by golly, it’s happening.
“But it was the handshake. God bless our veterans and God bless the United States of America.”
Pity any speaker who has to come next. In this case, it was Minnesota’s U.S. Senator Al Franken.
“Don’t anyone ever let me follow Jerry again,” said Franken.
Jerry Readmond and U.S. Senator Al Franken. (Photo by Rod Wermager)
Readmond’s were the only words anyone remembered. Readmond aimed for the heart, everyone else aimed for the talking points.
The lessons for speech givers and communicators alike are profound. Powerful persuasion comes in the emotional metaphors delivered by people who have credibility. In this case, it came from a disheveled man wearing a USMC t-shirt.