Americans celebrate the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, but Thomas Jefferson wrote it with an eye on July 6, 1776. Two days after the Continental Congress approved the document, it was read aloud for the first time from poster-size sheets called broadsides. And that's when it began to spread--from town to town and from battlefield to battlefield.
Jefferson's revolutionary words changed the world, but they did so because the words were written for the ear. John Adams knew that Jefferson had the skill to make a persuasive argument for liberty because Jefferson could make a logical argument while pulling at the heartstrings. Jefferson himself was reluctant and suggested that Adams draft it. "I will not. You can write ten times better than I can," Adams responded.
Jefferson's pen unleashed revolutions around the globe. Most of the people living in the world at the time were subjects of monarchies. The Declaration of Independence gave people permission to dream of a better life, and they took it. On this 242nd birthday of one of the most influential documents in human history, it's also worth remembering why it went viral. Jefferson's pen offers valuable lessons for anyone interesting in crafting a persuasive message or presentation.
Ask for feedback
The document we celebrate on every Fourth of July is dramatically changed from Jefferson's first draft. About 25 percent of the document was edited, cut and revised. Very few people like to see their work edited. Jefferson was no exception. In his biography of Jefferson, Pulitzer prize-winning historian Jon Meacham wrote that every edit was a "fresh agony." Jefferson hated the process--but he accepted it. Editing made his arguments stronger and his sentences tighter. For example, it was Ben Franklin who provided the words "self-evident" in the document's famous preamble.
No, Jefferson didn't enjoy the feedback, but he accepted it as critical to the writing process. As you prepare for any critical presentation, solicit feedback on your script, story and message. Ask your peers, friends, stakeholders or mentors a series of questions: What can I cut? Which parts are hard to understand? What part of my argument is the strongest and the weakest?
People will give you open and honest feedback--if you ask. Ask them.
Use the fewest words possible
The Declaration is a masterfully-written document partly because it articulates big, complex, and bold philosophical arguments in as few words as possible. According to the National Archives, Jefferson took only five sentences of 202 words to summarize what took philosopher John Locke thousands of words to explain.
Here are two sentences from Jefferson's document. The first is Jefferson's original rough draft. You might not recognize some of the words because they never made it to the final document.
Jefferson's first rough draft [original spelling]
We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independant, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness;
Here's the final version. It's tighter, easier to read aloud, and contains seven fewer words.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Group your ideas in threes
Eloquence comes in threes. The rule of three is a well-established structure in great stories, great writing, and great speeches. Jefferson understood the power of three to summarize key messages briefly, concisely and eloquently. In addition to the one of the most famous three messages in history--life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness--Jefferson accused King George III of hiring mercenaries who brought "death, desolation, and tyranny." Jefferson also pledged "our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor."
Jefferson celebrated the power of words to sway public opinion and rally troops to fight for a cause bigger than themselves. The tools of communication have changed in the last 200 years--we use PowerPoint and Skype instead of quill and ink. But the human brain has not. Words that are carefully edited and packaged can still change hearts and minds.