Nelson Mandela: Confidence to Inspire

nelson mandela

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” – Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela passed away at the age of 95 last Thursday, December 5. Before becoming the first democratically elected South African president, he spent 27 years in prison for challenging the racially oppressive, apartheid regime of South Africa. A memorial service was held in Johannesburg Tuesday morning. Tens of thousands of South Africans and more than 90 world leaders gathered to pay tribute to the man President Obama called, “the last great liberator of the 20th century.” In the poignant Ghanaian phrase that marks the passing of such an elder and statesman, “a great tree has fallen”.

Nelson Mandela was widely seen as a source of inspiration. Introducing Mandela at a 1994 rally in Cape Town, Archbishop Desmond Tutu said of the newly elected president, “One man inspires us all. One man inspires the whole world.” Mandela’s confidence was one of the many reasons he was able to inspire so many people. CNN described his style of leadership as being “fuelled by an innate inner strength, a deep-sense of self-confidence and years of patience honed in an apartheid jail.” Quoted in the New York Times obituary, Ahmed Kathrada, a close friend and one of Mandela’s comrades on Robben Island, also traces Mandela’s self-assurance back to his chiefly heritage. “The first thing to remember about Mandela is that he came from a royal family,” he said. “That always gave him a strength.”

Mandela’s confidence was apparent in his actions; he had the conviction to stand behind his beliefs, the confidence to stand up to his oppressors, and the courage to “be prepared to die” for his ideals “if needs be.” In face-to-face communication, confidence is conveyed by a combination of features, including vocal intonation, posture and body language, direct assertions, word choice, the absence or low frequency of hedges, and more. Mandela’s height, grace, and erect bearing helped communicate his confidence. But nowhere is this inherent confidence more apparent than in the words chosen by Mandela when addressing a crowd.

So we decided to analyze how he compares to the leading communicators in our database, which includes TED speakers, executive keynotes, and top commencement speeches, among thousands of others. Using our Natural Language Processing and Linguistic Mapping technology, we analyzed the language of 5 of Mandela’s famous speeches: 1) Mandela’s first court statement, now known as “Black Man in a White Man’s Court”, from the 1962 trial where he made that same point by arriving on the first day dressed in a traditional Xhosa leopard-skin cape; 2)“Speech From the Dock”, his moving and lengthy (4 hours!) statement at the 1964 Rivonia trial that sentenced Mandela and seven co-defendants to life in prison; 3) Mandela’s first public address after his release from prison in February 1990, made just two days later to a rally in Soweto; 4) his speech to Parliament in 1994, delivered 100 days after Mandela took office as president; and 5) his retirement announcement in 2004 as he withdrew further from public life at the age of 85.

We found Mandela’s speeches to include 96.5% more confident language than the average speaker in our extensive database.

A confident speaker provides insight into their thoughts and opinions unapologetically. They speak with assurance, leaving no room for doubt. The following quotes from Mandela’s address to the rally in Soweto are excellent examples of confident language:

“We are going forward. The march towards freedom and justice is irreversible.”

“It is discipline and loyalty to our principles that will liberate us. And I have not the slightest doubt that you are capable of behaving like people who are ready to make your contribution to the solution of the problems that are facing us, and also to address the greater question of the new society we want to establish.”

Nelson Mandela shows confidence by speaking very matter-of-factly. “We are going forward” and that’s all there is to it. “It is discipline and loyalty to our principles that will liberate us,” period. His speeches showed remarkable consistency in this, whether he was a young advocate challenging an unjust government, a mature leader emerging from prison and taking his country’s highest office, or an elderly statesman stepping offstage.

This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the strength and character of Mandela. The Nelson Mandela Foundation, states that “Nelson Mandela never wavered in his devotion to democracy, equality and learning. Despite terrible provocation, he never answered racism with racism. His life has been an inspiration to all who are oppressed and deprived, to all who are opposed to oppression and deprivation.” A review of his autobiography was entitled “Nelson Mandela. Self-confidence conquered his oppressors.” The archbishop of Canterbury described his courage as “…undefeated, indomitable, extraordinary.” According to an NPR article covering the memorial, “Andrew Mlangeni, one of only three surviving co-accused at the Rivonia treason trial that sent Mandela and his anti-apartheid colleagues to prison for 27 years, opened the memorial service remembering Mandela as an ‘incomparable force of leadership,’ who ‘illuminated the way in our nation’s darkest hour.’”

The world mourns the loss of an exceptional man and a beloved leader, but also celebrates the life of a man who led his country to democracy with words of inspiration, courage, and confidence.