Lincoln the Manipulator?

Four hidden magic words within the first line of the Gettysburg Address

Posted Feb 16, 2015

Photo: Mathew Brady/Wikimedia Commons

In honor of President's Day, I'll be looking at the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln’s most famous speech and two minutes of pure magic. But as you’ll see, part of what made it so magical were certain gems of psychological persuasion hidden throughout. Is there a new side to “Honest Abe” we hadn’t considered before? He’s been called “The Rail-Splitter,” “The Ancient One,” and “The Great Emancipator.” Should we add “Lincoln the Manipulator” to the list? Maybe.

In just the first sentence alone, Lincoln delivers four distinct psychological strategies designed to persuade and influence his audience. Here’s the world-famous sentence along with the four hidden magic words he placed there.

"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."

We may never need to influence a nation, but we can apply Lincoln’s mastery to our daily lives and work.

Hidden Magic Word #1: Once…
In this case, Lincoln got a little more specific with the now iconic, “Four score and seven years ago…” but regardless of his exact wording, he was telling a story. Research has shown that stories can be powerfully persuasive.

To test the power of story, Deborah Small at the University of Pennsylvania created two different versions of a marketing pamphlet designed to raise money for a charity. One version was laden with statistical data about the problems facing children in Africa, and the other featured a story about Rokia, an impoverished girl in the area. Participants were given just one of the two pamphlets to evaluate and they were also given five $1 bills to donate as much or as little as they would like to a charity that promised to help those children in Africa. Those who had received the statistics-laden pamphlet donated an average of $1.43, but those who had received the story pamphlet donated nearly double, an average of $2.38

APPLY IT: If you need to be more persuasive in the boardroom, in the classroom, or from the podium, a simple story will greatly increase your chances of moving your listeners to action.

Hidden Magic Word #2: Yes
While he doesn’t actually say this word, Lincoln cleverly gets everyone else to say it to themselves. Great communicators call this “beginning from a place of agreement." Although he had to go back 87 years, he eventually found something that his entire audience could agree on. Words like “liberty,” and “all men are created equal” are pulled directly from a document that was revered like no other, the Declaration of Independence. To nod your head in agreement at those hallowed words is a near compulsion to this day and anything else would have felt uncomfortably un-American.

In my book, I show how it is critical to get people to say “yes” to little things if you want them to say “yes” to bigger things later. Lincoln was a master at this and perhaps no other speech stirred the yeses quite like the Gettysburg Address.

APPLY IT: Instead of highlighting your disagreements with others, start by acknowledging your agreements.

Hidden Magic Word #3: “Our”
James Pennebaker studies how people use words. More specifically, how they use function words (such as pronouns and articles). His findings are startling and nearly universal. In his book The Secret Life of Pronouns he writes, “In any interaction between two people, the person with the higher status uses fewer I-words. [They also] use first person plural pronouns (we, us, our) at much higher rates than those lower in status.”

Is it possible that by using “our” early on and peppering the rest of his speech with even more “you” and “we” words, Lincoln effectively gained positioning, status, and perceived confidence within his audience’s minds? Did this technique, combined with the authority that comes with the U.S. presidency make the rest of his words much more credible and compelling? Or were these words simply the evidence of his title and position? Whether intuitive or intentional, it’s clear that Lincoln stayed away from I-words and leaned heavily towards we-words, captivating his audience on a subconscious level.

APPLY IT: If you want to improve your status and positioning, try removing as many I-words as you can from your emails and face-to-face interactions, and replace them with we-words.

Hidden Magic Word #4: Because
In the 1970s Harvard psychologist, Ellen Langer discovered that saying the word “because” when asking for something increases your persuasive power from 60 percent to 93 percent—even if you don’t have an actual reason. Unfortunately, that only really works for tiny decisions of relative little importance, such as whether you want to allow someone to cut in line ahead of you. Lincoln was dealing with a line being cut across a country. It couldn’t possibly work with something of any real significance, could it?

Lincoln used something I discuss in my book called “Advanced Because Technique,” or “ABT”. Although he doesn’t state the word “because” directly, the entire sentence (the entire speech, even) could be summed up in the word “because”. After all, it answers the question “Why?”

Why? “The proposition that all men are created equal.”

Why? “To see whether that nation, or any nation so conceived can long endure.”

Why? “For those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.”

Why? “For us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”

Why? “[So] 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.” THAT’S WHY!

People need reasons to do things and Lincoln gave them more than one hidden “because” etching the moment not just in the memories of those gathered, but right into the very fabric of America.

APPLY IT: Ask people (your employees, your kids) why they do things and then remind them of their own because when the going gets tough.

So was Lincoln a great public speaker or was he just a great manipulator? Actually, he was both. He became a great public speaker BECAUSE he understood how to manipulate words. Whenever he opened his mouth, he knew not only what he was going to say, but precisely how it was going to affect his audience and compel them to action. There’s nothing more honest than that, Abe.