Learning from the Louisville Lip: Five Lessons in Communications from Muhammad Ali

Few doubt that Muhammad Ali was the “The Greatest” heavyweight boxer of all times. Not to mention one of the most amazing, controversial, well-known, influential and admired world figures over the past 100 years.

Not bad for a poor kid from Louisville’s West End.

By Unknown - [1] Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989 bekijk toegang 2.24.01.04 Bestanddeelnummer 924-3060, CC BY-SA 3.0 nl,
By Unknown – [1] Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989 bekijk toegang 2.24.01.04 Bestanddeelnummer 924-3060, CC BY-SA 3.0 nl,
Since his passing, much has been written about his impact on sports, civil rights, the Vietnam War, religion, politics and more. But around the office, we’ve marveled at Ali’s agile skill as a communicator.

No one in the sports world – not Tiger or Earnhardt, Mantle or Magic, not a single Manning, woman or child – has been as effective with enduring words, personal branding or inspirational messaging as the man who started life as Cassius Clay, a name borrowed from a Kentucky abolitionist.

What can we learn about communications from the man whose words were as powerful as his fists?

  1. Play Offense – Ali was first and fast with his punches and his proclamations. He defined himself, his opponent, the challenge, and the measure of success before others got the chance. Good skills to follow in business, politics and life.
  2. Be Confident – Ali never doubted himself, his cause or his potential. And he made sure other people knew it. “I am the greatest” is a signature phrase. But Ali later acknowledged, “I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was. I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I really was the greatest.” Too often, leaders fail to inspire others because their words and actions lack confidence. If you don’t believe in yourself, it’s very hard to convince others to do so.
  3. Create a Vision – Ali was a master of imagery. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” immediately brings to mind grace and power in a vivid way that “dodge punches and hit hard” simply doesn’t. When you speak or write, use words and phrases that bring a picture to the mind’s eye of your audience.
  4. Keep it Simple and Consistent – Ali delivered messages outside of the ring with the same precision and frequency that his massive arms did inside the ring. He used memorable phrases (“I’m a bad man” “I am the Greatest” “I’m pretty”) and infectious rhymes (Joe’s gonna come out smokin’/ But I ain’t gonna be jokin’. /This might shock and amaze ya /But I’m going to destroy Joe Frazier.”) Simple phrases repeated consistently become engrained and inspire belief.
  5. Humor is the Universal Language – Humor was Ali’s secret weapon. From his early days to his last hours, The Champ used The Charm to make friends, diminish enemies and remind everyone that he’s just one of us. It’s a skill that he used with reporters who covered his fights in the rings, in the courts and in the streets. Even hard-nosed reporters couldn’t help but be a little mesmerized when Ali performed a magic trick for them.

Ironically and tragically, disease diminished some of Ali’s communications skills, particularly his speech and his swagger during last two decades of his life. But like the scrapper that he was, Ali found ways to get his message across – a playful gesture, a raised fist, that enduring and infectious smile.

Goodbye, G.O.A.T. The Greatest Of All Times.

— Chad Carlton,

C2 President

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