On this day in 1954, English medical student Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile in a time of 3:59.4. Before Bannister broke the four-minute barrier, the world record for the mile was 4:01.3. At the time, many thought that running under four minutes was physically impossible, but once Bannister did it, the barrier proved to be more of a psychological barrier than a physical one. A little more than a month after Bannister’s record run, Australian John Landy lowered the world record to 3:58 (2).
Long before the four-minute mile became a subject of public interest, there was another four-minute related event that played a part in the U.S. effort in World War I. As the United States entered the war in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson realized that winning the propaganda war at home was in some ways just as important as winning the ground war in Europe.
Wilson created an organization called the Committee on Public Information (CPI) to manage the news and to promote support for the war. One essential wing of the CPI was a group called the “Four Minute Men,” an army of 75,000 volunteers who gave short speeches in support of the war whenever the opportunity presented itself. For the CPI, the four-minute time limit was an essential element for success. Speeches need to be short, precise, and to the point. Long before anyone had ever heard of the “sound bite,” CPI published bulletins with tips on how to make every word of a speech count:
General Suggestions to Speakers
The speech must not be longer than four minutes, which means there is no time for a single wasted word.
Speakers should go over their speech time and time again until the ideas are firmly fixed in their mind and can not be forgotten. This does not mean that the speech needs to be written out and committed [memorized], although most speakers, especially when limited in time, do best to commit.
Divide your speech carefully into certain divisions, say 15 seconds for final appeal; 45 seconds to describe the bond; 15 seconds for opening words, etc., etc. Any plan is better than none, and it can be amended every day in the light of experience.
There never was a speech yet that couldn’t be improved. Never be satisfied with success. Aim to be more successful, and still more successful. So keep your eyes open. Read all the papers every day, to find a new slogan, or a new phraseology, or a new idea to replace something you have in your speech. (2)
The word propaganda derives from the Latin propagar, meaning to increase or to grow, as in the propagation of plants or crops. As a metaphor, it was originally used by the Catholic church, relating to the growth or spreading of the Christian faith. It later evolved to be used in relation to the spreading of secular ideas. In the mid-19th century, the word began to acquire negative connotations based on its use in describing the deceptive promotion of political messages.
Today’s Challenge: Speaking a Mile in Under Four Minutes
What is an idea that you have that is truly worth propagating or promoting? Generate some claims that you truly feel are worth spreading, not through propaganda, but through the responsible use of persuasive appeals. Write the text of a speech that will come in as close as possible, but not a second over, four minutes. (Common Core Writing 1 – Persuasion)
Quotation of the Day: The man who can drive himself further once the effort gets painful is the man who will win. -Roger Bannister