Laura Petrolino

Four Communications Lessons from Abraham Lincoln

By: Laura Petrolino | November 6, 2017 | 
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4 Communications Lessons from Abraham Lincoln Seven score and 17 years ago today Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th President of the United States.

For Abraham Lincoln, communication was a primary and powerful tool. One that drove his success, helped him shape public opinion, and defined his presidency.

On this anniversary of his inauguration, the #historynerd in me couldn’t help but take a look back at the communications lessons we all can benefit from today.

The Value of the Story

In the Abraham Lincoln communication strategy playbook stories are essential.

He loved to tell stories, and he used them both in casual conversation and, more strategically, in formal speeches and letters. 

Lincoln had a fantastic ability to find just the right story to illustrate a point and did it often.

He pulled stories from situations his audience (the American people) could relate to and important text they were familiar with (such as the Bible or Aesop’s tales).

For example, to stop an argument about who was responsible for the war, he launched into a story about a vicious bull on a farm in Illinois.

One day a neighbor climbed the fence and provoked the bull.

The neighbor and the bull got into a long chase.

Finally, as the bull dragged the neighbor around, while he clung to his horns, the neighbor yelled, “Darn you! Who commenced this fuss?”

And therein lies the question: who is at fault? The vicious bull who attacked anyone and everyone, or the intruding neighbor?

And Lincoln concluded:

That’s our situation here. It’s our duty to settle this fuss at the earliest possible moment, no matter who commenced it.

Abraham Lincoln Communications Lessons

Lincoln used stories during a very divisive time to accomplish several of tasks:

  • Help people see issues beyond emotion. A story helps neutralize the emotion by taking the discussion out of the hot zone into a more neutral medium. You’ll never change someone’s opinion on an issue, but you can provide ways to see issues from different perspectives. Stories do just that.
  • Leave memorable lessons and points. Stories are memorable and shareable. Lincoln was able to direct how people related to important issues by framing them through specific stories.
  • Unite people through common experiences.

Lincoln didn’t tell stories for the sake of stories, but told them with intention.

“Storytelling” is a buzzword we throw around a lot in this industry, but we can all look to Lincoln’s use of stories as a case study in how to really use them in an intentional and effective way.

Who Needs Twitter When You Have…

For Abraham Lincoln, communication was about controlling the story, and he quickly learned that the man who controlled the telegram (at the time the new, innovative communication platform) controlled the message.

He led the way for future adaptation and use of new forms of communication technology to reach out and connect to the American people in unprecedented ways.

(FDR and the radio, JFK and the television, Obama and social media.)

Lincoln used the telegraph to control his generals and troops, as well as supply the news media with quick status updates on events as they unfolded.

A Forward-Thinking Communicator

Even better, because Lincoln was ahead of his time when it came to his understanding of the new communication tool, he completely controlled the message.

He was always the first to get the media information and, therefore, the message he sent was almost always the one used.

Lincoln was also adept at the art of “sound bites.” And extremely good at creating short, memorable statements that translated well through telegram and in speeches.

Much like social media today, these short, message rich statements were shared broadly and cemented themselves in the mind of those who heard them.

(And many of them still in our minds today.)

Tom Wheeler wrote an entire book on Lincoln’s forward-thinking and progressive use of the telegraph and how it was instrumental to help him win the war.

He talks more about in an interview with BookTV.

More Communications Lessons

  • Lincoln understood the power of the “sound bite,” the limitation of attention spans (even then), and the need to be succinct and intentional in his words.
  • He was forward-thinking and constantly evolving in his use of new technology. An important distinction here: he did not use technology because it was a new and exciting (in fact it took him quite a while into his presidency understand how to best use the telegraph). Instead, he took advantage of the opportunities new technology and communication methods offered, regarding his communication goals.
  • Lincoln voraciously monitored and read the news, searched out editorials—both positive and negative—had aides report to him sentiment and questions overheard from the American people, and on-the-ground accounts by troops. And then he responded, specifically and completely. He used speeches and public letters published around the country to speak directly to the public and train the news media to look to him first for answers (not his detractors or others who could muddle the message).

Relationship with the Media and Thought Leadership

Abraham Lincoln, by all accounts, was the first “media president” in his adept use of the media.

Years later, this foundational relationship set by Lincoln springboarded Theodore Roosevelt’s relationship with the media.

This was also crucial for advancing his agenda.

His use of the telegraph was crucial for this relationship, but so was his strategy around communication, outreach, and response.

Yet More Communications Lessons

  • He was available for the media and worked to position himself as their most trusted source. While the news media of that time was a very different (and often very corrupt) institution, instead of taking an adversarial stance against them he treated them as allies to help spread the news about the war and the effort. He provided as much information as possible and did so accurately, quickly, and with the context necessary to properly interpret the message. This allowed him better control of the information reported and how it was reported.
  • He responded to critics on the same platform they used to criticize. And did so directly. One famous account is his direct response to an abolitionist editorial by Horace Greeley, the editor of the influential New York Tribune. This type of direct response from a sitting President was quite unprecedented at the time. While criticized greatly for being “beneath the office,” was tremendously effective for the President.
  • He never criticized or spoke negatively about detractors. Instead, he used facts and information to reposition the argument and the message.

Abraham Lincoln Communication Rule: Words Matter

How did Abraham Lincoln communicate?

Through the very specific, and tested, use of words.

For Abraham Lincoln, communication was all about wording.

He was fussy about word choice and agonized over phrasing.

His archives are full of endless drafts, re-writes, and edits to his letters and speeches.

He wrote succinctly and specifically.

Not one to speak in long flowery prose, as was customary for politicians of the time.

He spoke in very common, simple terms.

Specifically, he spoke and wrote for his audience, not his ego.

He also spoke directly to the public through a variety of mediums.

While there wasn’t such a thing as A/B testing, Lincoln did test his prose by submitting anonymous articles and letters to the editors and seeing how people responded to them.

He’d then adapt based on this feedback for his final draft.

Even More Communications Lessons

  • Write for your audience, not your ego.
  • Find ways to test wording, phrases, and messages to see what resonates best.
  • More words are not better. Use words intentionally and specifically.
  • Write densely. Lincoln made sure he was well-versed in all the facts and history of a topic before he ever wrote or spoke about it. This allowed him to create content that was dense with information, not fluffy and ambiguous.
  • The Abraham Lincoln communications strategy was all about listening. He listened to what people said and responded in a way that addressed those fears, concerns, and questions directly.

Like Abe, Like to Be Like Abe

Even Abraham Lincoln agreed one of the best ways to become a better communicator is to read often.

Happy Inauguration Day, President Lincoln!

About Laura Petrolino


Laura Petrolino is the chief client officer at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She also is a weekly contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.

  • Betsy A Decillis

    I came here for the bathroom story and am woefully disappointed, so I’ll tell it.

    Ethan Allen goes to London and is invited to dinner by some nobles. They excitedly await him going to the bathroom, because they thought it would be funny to put a portrait of George Washington in there. When Allen came back, he said nothing, which disappointed everyone.

    Finally someone decided to say something. “So what did you think about the portrait?”

    Allen shrugged his shoulders.

    And still they persisted. “You’re not offended?”

    Allen then says, “I can’t think of anything that will scare the crap out of an Englishman more than a portrait of Washington.”

    Please include Lincoln’s favorite story when you use lessons from his communication style, as he’d be disappointed otherwise.

  • Dawn Buford

    We have such a shortage of great leaders these days. Mr. Lincoln was a master at speaking truthfully and elegantly. Great examples you’ve pointed out Laura. We can all learn from him.

    • Agreed! And Lincoln in particular is such a fun character to study

  • paulakiger

    So creative, Laura!

  • Hi Laura:

    Excellent blog post, about my favorite president and his communications skills.

    Well done!

    • Thank you so much Bruce! He’s such an interesting character it was really hard to keep this post from becoming a novel.

  • Excellent post, Laura! We need more leaders who know how to “help people see issues beyond emotion.” And that’s valid for all countries today. It’s safe to day we need a “modern” Lincoln.

  • Lynn Shepherd

    New Member. First comment. Excited to be here! This so resonated with me, “More words are not better. Use words intentionally and specifically.” I have a similar saying, “Giving me too much information is the same as giving me no information.” Brevity can be so much more powerful because people appreciate it! Thank you for the post!

    • Yay! Hi!

    • Lynn! Hi! Sorry it took me so long to respond here, disqus sometimes likes to be flippant about when it alerts me of new comments.

      And yes! Especially a world over over-information, brief, powerful and directed communication is tremendously valuable.

      So happy to have you as part of our community and look forward to seeing more of you!

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