The Parable of The Great Networker – Paul Revere (and a little bit of Walter Cronkite)

Listen my children and you shall hear
of the midnight ride of Paul Revere…
So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm…
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


We all know the story.  Here’s the account from Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point:

In two hours, Paul Revere covered thirteen miles.  In every town he passed through along the way – Charlestown, Medford, North Cambridge, Menotomy – he knocked on doors and spread the word, telling local colonial leaders of the oncoming British, and telling them to spread the word to others.  Church bells started ringing.  Drums started beating.  The news spread like a virus as those informed by Paul Revere sent out riders of their own, until alarms were going off throughout the entire region.
Paul Revere’s ride is perhaps the most famous historical example of a word-to mouth epidemic.

Gladwell goes on to describe that one reason Revere’s ride worked so well was that it was Paul Revere who made that ride, and not someone else.  Paul Revere was a world-class networker.  People knew him – he knew people.  When Paul Revere spread the news, it was not a stranger spreading that news – but a person they knew, recognized, trusted.  He had credibility.

Walter Cronkite in Vietnam

It reminds me a little about the time when Walter Cronkite, out of character for him, injected his opinion into a broadcast. He stated, simply, that Vietnam was not winnable – a stalemate was the best we could hope for.  He stated it directly to the American people, and President Lyndon Baines Johnson famously responded:

“For it seems now more certain than ever,” Cronkite said, “that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.”  After watching Cronkite’s broadcast, LBJ was quoted as saying. “That’s it. If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”*

The common thread here is this:  when a person speaks, the more known/connected that person is, the more trusted, the more credible…then the more people will respond.

It takes a while (a lifetime?) of networking, of building a reputation of reliability, of building true credibility, to have that kind of impact.

So – make every connection you can.  Make those connections “strong ties” (Gladwell again).  Because, one of these days, you are going to need people to listen to what you have to say.


*  Yes, I am aware that there is some element of myth to the Cronkite story and LBJ’s response.  But, a myth is powerful — whether it gets details right or wrong.  I tell my students that “a myth is a story that is true, whether it is true or not.”

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