Be Like Honest Abe: Six Essential Lessons from a Model Communicator

In honor of his birthday, I thought I’d dedicate this column to one of my favorite presidents, Abraham Lincoln. Regardless of your particular discipline, I believe that there’s much about communications – applicable to today – that we can learn from Mr. Lincoln:

1. Getting to the pointThe Gettysburg Address is one of the most famous speeches ever delivered.  It consisted of 10 sentences and took a little more than two minutes to deliver (by way of comparison, President Obama’s recent State of the Union address lasted well over an hour including the applause breaks).  In the time he spoke, Lincoln invoked the principles of human equality as set forth by the Declaration of Independence and redefined the Civil War as a struggle not merely for the Union, but as “a new birth of freedom” that would bring true equality to all of its citizens, and that would also create a unified nation. 

All of President Lincoln’s hopes to end the Civil War and the entire future of his presidency and, for that matter, the entire nation, rested on his shoulders at that moment. Yet he did not allow the importance of the moment to complicate his message, and that speaks volumes about Lincoln’s gift as a communicator.

By now, it is widely known that Mr. Lincoln labored mightily with this speech as opposed to the commonly-held belief that it was hurriedly written on the back of envelop in ten minutes. In choosing his words carefully, Mr. Lincoln delivered his messages cogently and succinctly (and, of course, without the aid of PowerPoint).

2. Listening – How often do we forget that listening is an important part of the communications process? Clearly Mr. Lincoln was a listener and this trait informed his opinions and shaped his understanding of the people he was elected to govern. He spent hours sitting and talking with people, asking questions and getting to know others. He talked with soldiers, widows of fallen soldiers, common people and more. Although known as a great storyteller, he was also known to take the time to hear complaints from people and listen to their stories. It’s hard for leaders of significant importance to take the time to slow down and listen, but it’s critically important.

3. Crisis communications – Given that Mr. Lincoln presided over a war torn country, he came to be an expert at crisis communications. More than telling the American public why the war was worth fighting, he gave them a sense of hope during a time when hundreds of thousands were dying in the Civil War. And he gave Americans a sense of purpose, that it was their duty to honor the dead by ensuring government “of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

4. Learning – President Lincoln’s skills as a communicator were certainly shaped by what he read and, by all accounts, he was a voracious reader. Lincoln absorbed the biggest ideas and studied the best communicators he could find. As a youngster, he steeped himself in books such as biographies of George Washington, selections from Cicero, Demosthenes, Franklin, and dramatic passages from Hamlet, Falstaff, and Henry V.

5. Knowing the value of gesture – The day after General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865, the streets were thronged with people celebrating. Crowds serenaded President Lincoln throughout the day. Knowing that he had a nation to heal and a people to unite, President Lincoln offered a gesture of reconciliation and instructed the band to play “Dixie,” which was adopted as the Confederate anthem, and commented that it was “one of the best tunes I have ever heard.”

6. Pictures are worth 1,000 words – Mr. Lincoln was perhaps the most photographed president of his era. He was often photographed while visiting Union troops and his picture was snapped as he toured Richmond after it fell, much to the consternation of his protectors who feared sniper activity. As we all know, photos tell stories, reinforce positions and help to “humanize” events.

There is indeed much we can learn from President Lincoln, one of our greatest presidents and a great communicator. Read some of the biographies written about him. Read some of his speeches and writings as well as the books he read. Of course, learn to be a better listener. You’ll become a better communicator and advisor.

Published: February 17, 2011 By: irthereforeiam