Monday, February 10, 2014

Abe Lincoln: Master of Metaphor

The persuader.
We know from the Gettysburg Address that Abraham Lincoln had a way with words.

I was not aware of the full extent of his skill, however, until I came across an article by Dennis N.T. Perkins and his colleagues at the Syncretics Group in Madison, Connecticut. They write about the power of metaphor to persuade. Lincoln was the master.

Perkins quotes the historian James McPherson as saying that Lincoln "won the war with metaphors."

That's power. And here's the irony:

Lincoln had only a year of formal schooling. He taught himself by reading the Bible, Aesop's Fables, Pilgrim's Progress and Shakespeare.

His opposite in the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, went to the best schools. He was trained in rhetoric, logic, literature and science. In his writing and speech he was drawn to abstractions and platitudes.

Lincoln's speeches and writing, on the other hand, were filled with images. In one noted example, his speech to the legislature in Springfield, Illinois, included the sentence: "A house divided against itself cannot stand." That image captured his belief about the country. And he knew the people would recognize and understand it.

Joe Romm, a journalist and former government official, writes:
In a famous 1858 speech, Lincoln paraphrased Jesus, saying “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” and he extended the house metaphor throughout the speech. His law partner, William Herndon, later wrote that Lincoln had told him he wanted to use “some universally known figure [of speech] expressed in simple language “¦ that may strike home to the minds of men in order to raise them up to the peril of the times.”
Which worked. Historian David Potter has suggested that "if the Union and the Confederacy had exchanged presidents, the South might have won the war."

Yes, a leader must know how to use words.

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