Elevator Speeches

Regardless of one’s profession, developing an effective “elevator speech” is a useful skill. This is something that I literally had the opportunity to practice multiple times during my Foreign Service career, whether in the elevators of the State Department headquarters in Foggy Bottom or those of Foreign Ministries in capitals around the world. As the name implies, an elevator speech is a brief presentation that can be delivered during the time it takes to travel up and down the floors of a building. The benefit of having an effective elevator speech is that it helps to crystalize one’s arguments and hopefully will stay with the listener after they reach their designated floor. At its best, twitter promises to serve the same purpose in forcing writers to carefully hone their arguments. Sadly, twitter rarely lives up to this ideal form.

Since I won’t likely be visiting Dhaka any time soon, it is unlikely that I will have an opportunity to share an elevator ride with Prime Minister Hasina or any of her senior advisors. That doesn’t stop me, however, from thinking about how I would craft my elevator pitch to them about the importance of holding free and fair elections. Realizing that time is precious, I would not waste much breath pointing out how they had advocated for the same when in political opposition, nor would I appeal to their desire to leave a legacy. I would also not argue that it is the right thing to do (even though it clearly is). It’s not that I think these arguments are without merit, but rather I don’t think they would be persuasive. Instead, I would focus on appealing to my fellow passenger’s self-interest. The argument would go something like this.

One lesson we can take from history, whether in Bangladesh or around the globe, is that nothing last forever. There have been countless political leaders who found themselves on the top one day only to see the tables turned on them the next. Turning on the news, we saw this past weekend that Russian President Putin faced the real prospect of being ousted from power when his former allies turned on him. Winston Churchill and George H.W. Bush both led their countries to military victory only to lose power in peace time elections. Other historical figures faced much bumpier roads when they overstayed their time in office. It is not a question of if, but rather one of when and how.

Given this, those in power have two options. The first is to try to hold on to power at all costs. This may work for some time, but it won’t work forever. And the longer they hold on, and the greater extremes they go to in order to remain in power, the harsher the reaction will likely be when they leave. Again, there are plenty of examples to point to of what happens to autocrats when the dam finally breaks. The other option is to let the people decide whether those in power deserve a fresh mandate. If, as ruling party supporters claim, their policies over the past 15 years have been popular, then they should receive a vote of confidence from the people and relieve the pressure that has been building up. If, however, the people vote for a change, then there will be an opportunity for a peaceful managed transition. Those in power may fear accountability or retribution once they are no longer in office. As seen in other countries undergoing democratic transitions, these fears can be addressed and managed more easily when it is part of a constitutional process. Ultimately, leaders face choices and it is time for Bangladesh’s leaders to make theirs.

ABOUT AUTHOR: Jon Danilowicz is a retired Department of State Senior Foreign Service Officer with extensive experience in South Asia. During his career, Jon provided leadership at some of America’s most dangerous and challenging diplomatic posts. His career highlights include service as Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassies in Dhaka, Bangladesh and Juba, South Sudan and as Principal Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Peshawar, Pakistan.
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