Learning to Better Communicate from a Master

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, garnishes record approval and favor among all races, political parties, social economic categories, ethnic groups and gender more than 150 years after being elected to a second term to office in 1864.  His first term saw his leadership challenged by America’s only Civil War, one that threatened to dissolve the very Union he was elected to protect and serve and one that divided not only a nation but families as well.  Credited with holding the nation together and officially abolishing slavery, at a time when such actions were considered treason by nearly have the electorate and foolish by most of the other half, Lincoln was able to forge a following by strength of character and commitment to a higher order of moral values and leadership integrity.  His unprecedented ability to garnish support for his actions, from even his most ardent critics and formidable enemies, stands as one of the most admirable utilizations of the key principles of effective communication and public relations in history.

Equipped with a keen sense of humor and artful story-telling skills, Lincoln was able to frustrate and disable his most committed opponents with his backwoods, country-boy persona and inherit and naturally honest personality.  Here are a few principles our Nation’s greatest President practiced in communicating his vision for the country.

Have Something to Say

Communication is the sharing of information with others, but no matter the skill level of the communicator, if you have nothing to say or are ignorant of the necessary knowledge you will be ineffective in establishing the message and discredited as a reliable source.  Prepare a carefully crafted plan and follow the plan.

Build and Polish Your Brand

Build and nurture relationships with industry trade publications and local media outlets that cover the audience that you are attempting to connect with and share important tips and information with them to establish trust and credibility.  Abe Lincoln was an absolute master at currying favor with the White House press corps, sharing quotes, tips and trends.

Create a Strong Team

Doris Kearns Goodwin chronicled in A Team of Rivals, “Lincoln populated his Cabinet with the very people he defeated for the presidency. They were the best and brightest thinkers in the land. Lincoln not only sought their counsel but made sure the media knew they were involved in key decisions.”

One of the most challenging aspects of building a successful business is to gain trust and confidence in the organization.  To carry forth a message requires a team of creative thinkers and talented employees who share the vision and the goals of their leadership.  The best and most advantageous ideas for success often come from the voices of these who may not hold creative agreement with others.  To spite what some may claim no one finds sustained success being an island to one self.

Use Comedy, Tell a Story

If you want to be a persuasive communicator, shroud the facts and statistics with humor and a good story. Your audience may quickly forget your facts, the statistics, and the arguments but they will remember a colorful, artfully presented story that etches an ineligible picture in their minds eye.  Lincoln was the consummate master at story- telling and using humor to input an impression in the minds of his audience, often infuriating and frustrating his distractors.  Exasperated by General George McClellan’s unwillingness to engage in battle with Robert E. Lee, Lincoln sent a telegram that read: “If General McClellan isn’t going to use his army, I’d like to borrow it for a time.”  Knowing how and when to use comedy or tell a story will is a huge advantage to effectively communicating ones ideas and position.

Know Your Audience

The most effective communicators invest time and effort in researching their audience and developing a strategy of messaging that will result in a stronger connection with them.  Some listeners are motivated by the facts; statistics and details of a subject and others are more motivated by emotions and are bored with anything more than outline of the supporting data and details.  Think about the impact your message will have on your audience before you deliver it, consider the tone of your delivery and query whether it will invoke the intended response or if it will result in angering and distancing an intended target.  Lincoln once wrote:  “No man who has resolved to make the most of himself can spare time for personal contention.  Better to yield the right of way to a dog, than to be bitten by him in contesting the right.”  Seek to convince your audience that you have their best interest at heart and are empathetic to their concerns and interests.

Embrace New Technology

In case you have been living in a cave for the past decade, no one uses the same tools of communication of the past decade anymore.  Twitter, LinkedIn, Email, Facebook, blogging and other emerging technologies have burst onto the seen in the past few years and have opened the door to communicating to the masses.  The young, old, rich, impoverished, schooled and uninformed are all embracing the new and expanding communication technologies and tools in order to open the door to knowledge.  Heighten your own awareness and thought leadership by demonstrating your ability to be as conversant with what’s new as your audience.  In his book, Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails, Tom Wheeler describes our 16th President’s complete mastery of an emerging technology called the telegraph. Like Twitter, the telegraph forced a writer to be concise. In one classic exchange with General Grant near the end of the war, Grant telegraphed Lincoln, stating: “If the thing is pressed I think that Lee will surrender.” What was Lincoln’s Twitter-like response? “Then, press the thing.”

Protect Your Reputation

Lincoln said, “Reputation is like fine china: Once broken it’s very hard to repair.”  This is a no-brainer for communication professionals, whose job it is to advance and manage a message.  While the best lessons are often learned from our failures, wearing the eraser out before the pencil will result in the inevitable loss of a reputation and render the communicator ineffective and discredited.  Not every campaign will result in a Pulitzer Prize or an Academy Award for its performance, believe in permitting your team to fail and foster an environment of creativity and calculated risk taking, but insist on a high standard of integrity, conduct and authenticity.

Few communication professionals will ever achieve the level of skill demonstrated by masters of the craft like Abe Lincoln, but exposing ourselves to the biggest ideas and the best communicators will produce lessons that will elevate our craft to new levels of effectiveness.  We all benefit from history and those who have made history, from those who criticize and from those who admire our efforts.  Becoming an effective communicator is a one step at a time project, and one that has a constant learning curve and continuous improvement process. The famous newspaperman Horace Greeley, who often was Lincoln’s critic, made this telling observation about the great communicator:  “There was probably no year of his life that he was not a wiser, cooler, better man than he had been the year preceding.”

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