Craft Your Words Carefully
Four-score and eighty years ago, two of our forefathers set forth to face one another in a series of debates.
These two men were Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. Ostensibly vying for a seat in the United States Senate, they were actually debating the future of, and indeed the continued existence of, the United States of America.
Their debates would normally have been of minimal interest outside their home state, but in fact attracted national and even international attention - an amazing feat in a century without radio, television, film or internet.
“The prairies are on fire!” one eastern newspaper famously exclaimed. What made these provincial debates captivate the world? Can we learn something from them?
First off, we should clarify “debate.” Unlike today’s presidential debates in which candidates respond to questions with short soundbites, the Lincoln-Douglas debates were intense. The opening candidate spoke for an hour straight, followed by his opponent who rebutted for an hour and a half. The first candidate then closed with another half-hour speech. There was no moderator.
The audiences were held spellbound. Would anyone have the patience to sit through a three-hour debate today? Of course they would. My millennial generation son and his friends hold Star Wars marathons on occasion. They sit captivated in my basement by the day-long saga as they watch every movie in chronological order.
Don’t think for a minute that people won’t sit and pay attention for long periods of time. Go deep, and give them something worthy of holding their focus.
Lincoln and Douglas weren’t angels. They tried to make each other look foolish and were happy to bend the truth to serve their own positions. Such techniques date back as far as debates between ancient Greek schools of philosophy. They did keep their discourse civil, and used facts rather than curses to persuade their audience of the wisdom of their positions.
Remember that each man spoke for 90 minutes in each debate! Name calling alone may work on Twitter, but over the course of 90 minutes facts must be used, supported and explained.
It should be noted that both men were brilliant. Both were well-educated, not from formal schooling, but from the voracious thirst for knowledge that both possessed. Neither underestimated the other’s abilities.
“I shall have my hands full. He is … full of wit, facts, dates and the best stump speaker … in the west. He is as honest as he is shrewd, and if I beat him my victory will be hardly won.” So Douglas said of Lincoln before the debates.
Brilliance of the sort exhibited by Lincoln and Douglas doesn’t come easily. Both men started life in abject poverty and made their way up by virtue of hard work of both the physical and mental variety. Neither had the advantage of an Ivy-League education.
In their debates both men spoke from the heart. Beyond each of their political aspirations lay a genuine and sincere belief in a higher cause. Both men worried - correctly - that the very fabric uniting the states was being torn in two.
Both men were frank and unafraid to acknowledge that slavery was the issue that was tearing the nation apart. Both men wanted to preserve the union at any cost; they just disagreed as to how best to do it. Both men were true to themselves, their positions and their personalities in their presentation. Lincoln was eloquent and persuasive, while keeping his folksy wit that constituents found so charming. Douglas retained his famous fiery delivery without stooping to yelling or bluster.
I’ll bet you, dear reader, were born with more advantages than Lincoln or Douglas. The point is that both men made the most of every opportunity they were given. You can do the same.
Do you have a position to espouse? Follow the examples of Lincoln and Douglas. Use facts and figures. Craft your words carefully. Speak respectfully of those who differ from you and be quick to acknowledge points of agreement. Don’t talk down to your audience.
Speak to issues, not to personalities. Be fearless in your beliefs, but cautious in your statements. Address topics of true and lasting importance rather than shooting off your mouth on whatever item is the hot button of the day.
Lastly, imagine your words in print before you speak. Someday you’ll likely have grandchildren (if you don’t already). When they read your words, will they be proud or embarrassed? How about you?
Steve Johnson, president and CEO of Copresco in Carol Stream, Ill., is an executive with 40 years of experience in the graphic arts. He founded Copresco, a pioneer in digital printing technology and on-demand printing, in 1987. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.copresco.com