9 traits of eloquence in the superlative leader

“It is with words as with sunbeams. The more they are condensed, the deeper they burn.” ~Robert Southey

Perhaps the greatest challenge faced by the wordsmith is brevity, to never use two words when one will do. Writing by pen and paper have somewhat facilitated brevity but word processors make it simple and easy to churn out thousands of pages.

But gifted communicators know that less is more and no more striking contrast may be found than that which occurred on November 19, 1863. Crowds had gathered to dedicate the Union cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The featured speaker was Edward Everett, celebrated diplomat, clergyman, and orator. President Lincoln had been invited almost as an afterthought. Everett, with a reputation for eloquence and public speaking, spoke for almost two hours.

Lincoln spoke for two minutes.

No one remembers anything Everett said but Lincoln’s speech has become one of the most famous in history. The video clip below is by Ken Burns, producer of the PBS series The Civil War. Watch it and see if you don’t agree that “the more words are condensed, the deeper they burn.”

The impact of Lincoln’s short speech, only 269 words (just for reference, this word right here marks 263 words) is one of the most remembered and revered speeches in American history. Here it is.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln November 19, 1863

Many historians regard Abraham Lincoln as one of the greatest leaders in history. Few would have predicted it at the time. He lacked a formal education, came from very humble roots, was not strikingly handsome. But few would dispute that he was a superlative leader.

As such, we can extract several principles of eloquence from his speeches and writings. Here’s what I see in no particular order.

  1. Brevity. The speaker preceding Lincoln on that day spoke for almost two hours. Lincoln spoke for less than two minutes. When words are well chosen and sentences well-constructed, it takes fewer than you think to move and inspire.
  2. Powerful words – we develop habits of using weak language and limited vocabulary. Superlative eloquent leaders do not rely on obscure words or words of several syllables. They build their argument on powerful words. Look through the speech above. Not one weak verb anywhere. None! All were carefully chosen for the emotional and visual impact they provoke.
  3. Minimal vocalized pauses – a friend of mine just produced a video course in social media for a national organization of volunteers. The final cut is an hour and a half but the original presentation was two hours long. In the editing they cut 30 minutes off simply be eliminating verbalized pauses, the “uhs” and “you knows” that clutter up our speaking.
  4. Comfortable and natural, not feigned or pretentious – for some, Lincoln’s words may seem a bit flowery, but it was the way people spoke in that day. Eloquent speakers use phrases and idioms that are not vulgar. I mean that two ways. Their speeches are not peppered with salty language and they are sophisticated and in good taste, appropriate to the occasion and the audience.
  5. Powerful and effectual – boredom is not an acceptable response. Superlative, eloquent leaders gain attention and provoke a response. Something happens as a result of what has been said. If nothing happens, something is terribly wrong. To be eloquent is to be persuasive, inspiring, and moving.
  6. Use words that are meant to be heard not just meant to be read. By this I am inferring one thing. Words used by superlative eloquent leaders are honest words. They emerge from a speaker’s character and echo the motives of his heart. They are neither written nor spoken to pander to a crowd. If you’re speaking in public somewhere and hire a speechwriter, make sure that writer understands your heart and writes things you would say had you the time to write it yourself.
  7. Eloquence renders the speaker worthy of confidence. The things leader’s say either advance their agenda or set it back (no response is a reversal). Those words either build your credibility or erode it. No wonder when criminologists describe a swindler they call them “confidence men” because their eloquent speaking creates a sense of trust so that their targets place their confidence in them along with their money.
  8. Eloquence starts where the hearers are rather than where you want them to be. This is important. Whether you are speaking one on one or before a crowd it is imperative that you know where they are in their thinking, attitudes, knowledge base, and understanding. And you need to know where you want to leave them when you are finished. Then decide what to say to get them there.
  9. Eloquence uses persuasive arguments to seal the deal. Superlative leaders do not speak just to hear themselves speak. Granted some leaders do just that but I would not categorize them as superlative. Eloquence leaves listeners and readers somewhere different than where they started. Words take people farther, higher, or deeper. Use them well.

Lincoln did, Churchill did, Kennedy did, Reagan did, and I could list a dozen more known only to me. If you are not a gifted speaker, get help. There are coaches, programs, and tutors who can sharpen your skills. If you are a gifted and eloquent person, you are to be encouraged to note just how effective your words can be, indeed how effective they have been.

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