Ask anyone for the most famous speech in American history and chances are excellent many will start rattling off, "Four score and seven years ago ... "
With just 271 words, Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address managed to not just memorialize the Union dead of the Battle of Gettysburg but also to capture the entire promise of the American project. It's quite a feat, and it's just one of many examples of Lincoln's fabled oratorical skills.
The guy, in short, was one heck of a communicator, and according to a new book, modern leaders in business as well as politics can learn much from how he cast a spell with words.
Use the messy origins of English to your advantage
The book is called Farnsworth's Classical English Style and was written by Ward Farnsworth, dean of the University of Texas School of Law. On law blog the Volokh Conspiracy, Farnsworth recently shared one quick and useful persuasion lesson modern leaders can take from Lincoln.
To put the tip to use, however, you first need to know a little bit about the origins of the English language. Unlike some languages that evolved steadily from ancient roots, English is a mishmash of words from the different groups that invaded the British Isles over the years.
"Much of it was created out of the language of invaders who came to Britain around AD 450 from Anglia and Saxony (in what we'd now call northern Germany). About 600 years later, the French invaded and brought their language with them, too; it was derived from Latin," Farnsworth explains in his post. "The new French competed with Old English, and the outcome was a language--modern English--built out of both."
That little tidbit helped me pass British Literature 101 at university many moons ago, but it's also surprisingly useful for any modern leader hoping to persuade in English. Words with Anglo-Saxon origins generally come across as plain and direct--e.g., get or need--while those with French origins feel more formal and flowery--acquire or require.
End your arguments with a "Saxon clincher"
Lincoln, Farnsworth argues, was a master at mixing the two types of words for maximum impact. "Lincoln especially liked to start a sentence with Latinate words and then end with a Saxon finish," Farnsworth explains, offering Lincoln's famous "House Divided" speech as an example:
Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new, North as well as South.
Lincoln kicks off with a formal style, employing many Latinate words like opponents, extinction, and advocates. But then he closes with 14 straight single syllable words in a row, almost all of them of Anglo-Saxon origin.
This trick works as well for marketing as it does for martial speeches. While more complex Latinate words can convey expertise and help create pretty sentences, when you close your argument, shift gears and end with the plainest terms possible for maximum impact.
Or, as Farnsworth puts it: "If you want to experiment with this idea, try finishing your arguments with words that are simpler and shorter than the ones you've recently been using--in other words, with a Saxon clincher."
Thanks for the tip, President Lincoln. If you're interested in reading about more like it, check out Farnsworth's book.