In 1805, off of Cape Trafalgar in Spain, over 70 sailing ships met in a climactic naval battle. Lead by the brilliant Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, Britain and her navy destroyed or captured 22 ships for no losses. The Royal navy would not be seriously challenged again until the First World War, over 100 years later. Nelson, already missing an eye and an arm, was killed in the battle and became one of the nations most heroic figures and remains highly influential in military and cultural histories. This post is about two messages he sent to his ships during the battle.
At the time of Trafalgar, navy ships were made of wood and had sails. To communicate with one another messages were coded and sent using various colored flags that were raised up the mast so the other ships could see and decode them. Before the battle, Admiral Nelson had this rousing message sent to the fleet, “England expects that every man will do his duty.”
This patriotic and inspirational message became instantly famous after the battle. Especially among the worlds navies. It was written on Nelson’s tomb and on various Nelson monuments. Like an unofficial motto for all things naval, it was emblazoned on ships, propaganda posters and plaques. Other Admirals stole it and used it to inspire their men. In 1941, Japanese Admiral Togo sent a similar message to his ships before departing for Pearl Harbor. It’s that heavy.
As inspirational as it is it doesn’t actually give the other ship’s captains any instructions on how to conduct themselves. I’m sure the men cheered when it was read to them but the officers in charge of the individual boats may have thought, “Thanks, Admiral, but seriously, where do want us to sail our ship?”
It would be Nelson’s last message, as the battle was beginning, that did more to actually win the battle than the feel-good platitude that he is famous for. That message, sent with just two coded flags, was this, “Engage the enemy more closely.”
Not to bog this down in 19th century naval tactics any more than it already is but Nelson knew that the Spanish and French sailors would lose their cool if quickly charged and fired at from their sterns. Despite being out numbered, he needed his ships among the enemy. It worked. So well in fact that charging headlong to “engage the enemy more closely” became dogma at the naval academies for 100 years.
This message provides a clear direction and course of action. It isn’t meant to motivate but to instruct.
As improv teachers and coaches are we doing enough to tell our players how we want them to perform? Are we using patriotic, feel-good messages and then just expecting the battles to be won? Inspiration and motivation are vitally important in any performance art or sport, but we need to have clear goals in mind and give our players the instructions on how to achieve them.
Here are some classic pieces of improv advice: make your partner look like a genius, have fun, play the relationship, raise the stakes, make what your partner said important, don’t think, commit. How many of these stir our hearts more than they inform our brains? Maybe before your next class or rehearsal you take a quick moment to look over the lesson plan and make sure you’re doing both.