Storytelling as learned behavior: the unusual example of Abraham Lincoln

Storytelling as learned behavior: the unusual example of Abraham Lincoln

One of the questions I am most often asked in my seminars and public speaking concerns the charismatic speaker. Are great orators born or made? For me, after some twenty years of coaching and observing leaders, of teaching seminars throughout the world, and of studying the characteristics of effective communication, this has become an easy question to answer. The “gifted” communicator is a societal myth.

It is striking to me that many people continue to believe that some individuals are gifted communicators.  Both in my work and in social circles, I often hear observations such as: “I have never been very good at expressing my thoughts in public”, or “Isn’t she fortunate to have such a natural talent for communication!”  Interestingly, my experience and research have led me to the opposite conclusion—that there are no born communicators.

To those who believe in nature over nurture, I would concede that some human beings may have more innate talent for self-expression than others. On the other hand, learning to speak effectively and with confidence is a process of acquiring expertise that follows a familiar pattern, and that pattern is similar to those who achieve great prowess in any field. Whether one considers the achievements of Mozart in music, of Tiger Woods in golf, or of Gary Kasparov in chess, the model that emerges is one of deep passion and intense practice.

The importance of practice and coaching: Becoming an orator is no different than becoming anything else. When one studies the lives of those we tend to think of as great “natural” communicators—Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King or Margaret Thatcher for example—one finds that these individuals have practiced, and practiced a lot.  Their voices, and their self-confidence, emerge and develop as they repeat their stories and their themes, over and over, with a constant desire to improve.

More and more, researchers are finding that the “child prodigy” is not so much an individual born with a gift, but rather one who finds two things early in life: an extraordinary learning environment, and a passion for constantly improving his skills in the chosen field.

When I wrote a series of posts about mastery and deliberate practice a few months ago (for example, the entry from October 29, 2012), we saw that a critical element of the road to outstanding achievement was the presence of a coach. Often a parent or early teacher, the mentor designs the practice activity that pushes the student beyond his comfort zone, toward continuous improvement. In addition, this highly qualified coach provides continuous guidance and encouragement, as well as a discerning eye capable of dispensing relevant feedback on an ongoing basis.

Mastery as an act of self-creation: While a coach or mentor is usually present to structure the child’s practice, occasionally we see an example of someone who gets to mastery largely by dint of his own will. Such seems to be the case of Lincoln, whose road to becoming an inspirational orator and storyteller was a “Herculean act of self-creation”, in the words of biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin.

What is truly extraordinary in the case of Lincoln is that his practice was largely self-motivated, self-imposed, and self-directed. While he did it without an identifiable mentor or teacher, his efforts to perfect his oral expression do bear a remarkable resemblance to what we today would call deliberate practice.

In fact, if we consider four important elements of the journey to mastery–repetition, passion, feedback and focus–we can observe that all were present in Lincoln’s self-directed development as a public speaker.

A lot of repetition: In all the descriptions of Lincoln’s childhood, we see that he took to the practice of speaking in public early in life, and that he rehearsed the activity constantly. Indeed, in the home of Thomas Lincoln, storytelling was the daily form of entertainment. As such, young Abraham had endless examples of speakers and styles to imitate. Each day, he would bring his new learnings to his practice arena, the tree stump where he stood and entertained the other children.

This practice of expressing himself in public arenas would continue as Lincoln grew. As an older child and adolescent in Indiana, he made a regular practice studying preachers giving sermons, and then imitating their mannerisms, to the delight of friends and onlookers.

He went on to a career in law, at a time when the county courts were itinerant; judges, attorneys, bailiffs and other court officials would travel from town to town. According to several accounts I have read, people would travel for miles on foot or on horseback to listen to Lincoln as he “held court” in local taverns.

Passion: In Lincoln’s case, the desire to speak and improve appeared to be boundless. As a child, he had little access to education but a burning desire to learn. He understood early on that storytelling was a skill he could acquire, and he took it upon himself to perfect this art form.

Feedback and focus: Historians consistently describe Lincoln as thorough and meticulous in his attention to detail, even as a young boy. With his access to storytellers, and with his passion for learning, Lincoln created his own forum for honing his skills. As he experimented with styles and techniques, he paid close attention to the reactions of his audiences, and used their feedback to refine his art. Beginning in his youth, this future politician learned to listen intently to comments and criticism, and he became his own coach.


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