A Little Taste of Abraham on the Stump: Substance and style from a master communicator

By on February 21, 2017

William Henry Herndon was a law partner and biographer of President Abraham Lincoln.  They were a study in contrasts, opposites in temperament.

Despite a poetic streak, Lincoln’s mind was logical, and he longed for the day when “reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason,” would rule the world.

Herndon was intuitive; he fancied that he could ‘see to the gizzard of things’ and could predict the future because he “felt it in his bones.”

Here is Herndon’s description of Lincoln’s manner on stage, speaking to an audience:

On rising to address the jury or the crowd he quite generally placed his hands behind him, the back part of his left hand resting in the palm of his right hand.

As he proceeded and grew warmer, he moved his hands to the front of his person, generally interlocking his fingers and running one thumb around the other.

Sometimes his hands, for a short while, would hang by his side. In still growing warmer, as he proceeded in his address, he used his hands — especially and generally his right hand — in his gestures; he used his head a great deal in speaking, throwing or jerking or moving it now here and now there, now in this position and now in that, in order to be more emphatic, to drive the idea home.

Mr. Lincoln never beat the air, never sawed space with his hands, never acted for stage effect: was cool, careful, earnest, sincere, truthful, fair, self-possessed, not insulting, not dictatorial; was pleasing, good-natured; had great strong naturalness of look, pose, and act; was clear in his ideas, simple in his words, strong, terse, and demonstrative; he spoke and acted to convince individuals and masses; he used in his gestures his right hand, sometimes shooting out that long bony forefinger of his to dot an idea or to express a thought, resting his thumb on his middle finger.

Bear in mind that he did not gesticulate much and yet it is true that every organ of his body was in motion and acted with ease, elegance, and grace, so it all looked to me.

–William H. Herndon letter, July 19, 1887

Notice Lincoln put his hands behind his back at the start of his talks, a gesture that signals reserve, formality and deference.  

We don’t see speakers doing that these days. To me, hands clasped behind the back appear old-fashioned.

Herndon says that, after a while, as Lincoln warmed up, he twiddled his thumbs. Again, not sure I’ve seen anybody do that.  

It seems that only when Lincoln got into third gear did he allow his hands to talk..

From this description, it seems Lincoln’s body language at the start was cautious and deferential, and only became more assertive and expressive when the audience got to know him, and he became more comfortable with them.

I love the description of “that long bony forefinger of his” shooting out “to dot an idea or to express a thought.”

And then he used his head to punctuate his speech, and drive home the message.  I’m tempted to say that in the age of TV your best chance to appear Presidential is to emulate the four faces on Mt. Rushmore: Keep your head still.  But I don’t want to limit eccentricity and individualistic speaking habits. Your own peculiar style could be what helps you win the day.

When Herndon talks about Lincoln not “sawing space with his hands,” he is referring to Hamlet’s speech to the actors, when he warns them not to overdo it:

“Nor do not saw the air too much with your hands, thus, but use all gently, for in the very torrent, tempest, and as I may say whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.”

By the way, Lincoln was a great reader of Shakespeare, and loved to read passages from the plays aloud to his friends and family.

What are you reading to improve your ability to speaker well? What you read plants a seed that could come in handy in your hour of need.

Clear, simple, strong, convincing, “every organ of his body in motion” acting with ease, elegance and grace.

How did he get so good?  I suppose, like all of us, he got good by doing it over and over again.  What’s that saying? “Excellence is not an act.  It’s a habit?”

“Clear in his ideas, simple in his words, strong, terse, and demonstrative; he spoke and acted to convince individuals and masses…”

Plus, he was funny.

How can we make things clear?  How can we keep our words simple despite the complexity of our material?  How can we be strong and demonstrative?

These are the the skills we seek to develop, and the speaking habits we aspire to acquire.

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