Lessons from Lincoln on How to Persuade with Storytelling

For the past several months, friends and colleagues have been urging me to see Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” Having finally gotten the opportunity to do so on recent flight, I am grateful for my friends’ steady insistence. I am also grateful for the nice woman seated next to me who pretended not to notice me tearing up several times during the film.

Lincoln” is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s novel, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” which my mother gave me for Christmas several years ago with the simple instructions of, “Here, learn something.” The movie does an incredible job of showcasing the remarkable depths of Mr. Lincoln’s persuasiveness: most notably his ability to swim tenaciously and tactfully against a current of opposition until he eventually tires that current and coaxes it to flow in his direction. The movie celebrates many things about Mr. Lincoln, reminding us what a great president, leader and man he truly was. What the film celebrates most, however, was Mr. Lincoln’s talent at oratory and debate and, in particular, his masterful use of storytelling to amplify the power, impact and persuasiveness of his oratory and debate.

I imagine that if Lincoln were alive today, retired from the presidency, he would be spending the twilight years of his stellar career sharing his wisdom on persuasive communications with others. I envision him giving a TED talk somewhere, waxing on about how and why storytelling can be so effective and powerful in the most combative of situations, sharing the following rationale.

  • Storytelling disarms people — While debate and arguments can be threatening, storytelling is not. We all have positive feelings of storytelling because it has been a part of our lives as early as we can remember, first exposed to us by loving parents comforting us at the end of the day and an integral part of our lives ever since. Accordingly, “Let me tell you story” can be a warmly familiar and wonderfully benign grenade to toss into the most contentious of discussions. It’s like issuing a momentary cease-fire for everyone involved, providing even the most heated of debates (and debaters) the ability to pause, take a breath and simply listen. And in that moment, tempers can calm and cooler heads can prevail.
  • Storytelling can help others to see your side of an issue — As storytelling disarms us, it brings down the mental and emotional barriers we erected to protect ourselves in arguments. And as those barriers lower, our ability to open our minds and our hearts to new ideas rises. Debate is often practiced as an intellectual exercise, as each party tries to out-logic the other. But storytelling calls on magic as well as logic, imagination as well as reason, and senses as well as sense. As storytelling opens people’s minds and hearts, it also opens up their eyes. Using a story to illustrate your point clears the smoke of a heated debate, if only for moment, and enables others to see where you’re coming from. They might not agree 100% with that perspective, but at least they’re now seeing it. And often, that’s half the battle.
  • Storytelling enables others to see you — The Danish author, Isak Dinesen, once said, “To be human is to have a story.” Our very lives are shaped by the stories we tell, the stories we hear and the stories others tell about us. When I embed a story into a heated debate, not only does that story enable my opponents to see my side of the issue, but it also gets them to see a side of me. Storytelling gives your opponents a glimpse at who are you, what you hold dear, what makes you tick. There is vulnerability in opening yourself up and revealing that that softer side of yourself, but there is also power. For in that moment, you compel your opponent to rise above the debate and connect with you at a deeply human level, paving the way for common understanding and potential accord. It’s easy to disagree with a point someone is making in a heated debate. It’s much more difficult to disagree with a story and, therefore, the person telling it.

Abraham Lincoln was a great leader because he was a great communicator; and he was a great communicator because he was a great storyteller. But he wasn’t just any type of storyteller; he was a strategic storyteller. He deeply understood the power storytelling has to influence the way people think and feel about an issue, shape their perceptions and move them collectively towards a desired action. And he was able to read a contentious situation, the people involved and their opposing point of view, and then strategically pick the right story to tell at the right time. Did he have a gift? Did someone teach him about storytelling? I don’t know. What I do know is that his ability to put storytelling to work simply…worked. And we are all the better for it.

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About Bill Baker

Bill Baker is the Founder and Principal of BB & Co Strategic Storytelling, a boutique strategic consultancy that helps companies uncover the richer story of their brand (or branded initiative), define a strategic vision for its future and then engage and align employees and other stakeholders around both. If you are interested in booking Bill to speak at your next conference or corporate gathering, please visit his speaker site. If you’d like to learn more about BB&Co’s Leadership Through Storytelling training for managers and executives, click here.
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3 Responses to Lessons from Lincoln on How to Persuade with Storytelling

  1. Hi Bill,
    I was also struck by his storytelling and how he used it to achieve his end. Loved the movie, too.

  2. Very nice article.

    I think storytelling was Lincoln’s secret weapon that allowed him to reach the great political heights that he did. Stories were an entertaining and compelling way to connect with people.

    Lincoln himself said, “Stores are the shortest path between a stranger and a friend.”

    As I describe in my book, “How Abraham Lincoln Used Stories to Touch Hearts, Minds, and Funny Bones,” following a chance meeting that Union General, Carl Schurz, had with Lincoln on a train, Schurz described the meeting this way:

    “I soon felt as if I had known him all my life and we had very long been close friends. He interspersed our conversation with all sorts of quaint stories, each of which had a witty point applicable to the subject at hand.”

    This observation by Schurz describes the epitome of a Lincoln story. Lincoln did three things:
    1) He connected with the listener;
    2) He entertained the listener; and,
    3) He enlightened the listener. He edified Schurz with a relevant point, some food for thought, and conveyed a message Schurz would not soon forget.

    Pow! Lincoln knocks the ball out of the park!

    • Bill Baker says:

      Thanks so much for your further observations about this great storyteller Terry. He really was a master. Appreciating what a somewhat quiet and reserved man he was socially, we can also respect how skillfully he used storytelling to unobtrusively seed and cultivate an idea in others. I plan to look for your book.

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