Why the spoken word is more powerful than printed prose (and how)

Speechwriting and speaking advice from the man who may have influenced Lincoln.

…[S]poken language has a great superiority over written language, in point of energy or force. The voice of the living speaker makes an impression on the mind, much stronger than can be made by the perusal of any writing. The tones of voice, the looks and gesture, which accompany discourse, and which no writing can convey, render discourse, when it is well managed, infinitely more clear, and more expressive, than the most accurate writing. —From Hugh Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783)

Although he never visited the U.S.A., an intriguing historical question links the name of Hugh Blair, the 18th century Scottish clergyman and teacher of rhetoric, to that of Abraham Lincoln.

The question is this: did Lincoln ever read Blair’s lectures on rhetoric, and if so, how much did Blair influence the future President as a public speaker? (Blair died in 1800, nine years before Lincoln’s birth.)

Among those who have written about a possible Blair/Lincoln link is the distinguished Garry Wills.

While Wills has noted how Lincoln’s style of speech “seems the very embodiment of Blair’s [rhetorical] ideal,” the closest this renowned scholar will come to asserting a connection is to say the Great Emancipator “may” have read Blair’s work. The available evidence relies on conflicting, sometimes hazy accounts from long ago of which books Lincoln had in his own library, or could have borrowed from his neighbors.

Perhaps Lincoln did indeed seek out Blair’s writings, or read a Blair lecture after a friend recommended it to him. The popularity of Blair’s lectures on rhetoric in Lincoln’s day, among those who wanted to improve as public speakers, is not hard to understand –as the excerpts below show:

1. Don’t bore the audience—vary your sentence length when writing or delivering a speech.

A train of sentences, constructed in the same manner, and with the same number of members, whether long or short, should never be allowed to succeed one another. However musical each of them may be, it has a better effect to introduce even a discord, than to cloy the ear with the repetition of similar sounds; for nothing is so tiresome as perpetual uniformity.

2. Use those tropes and figures of speeches sparingly.

The great place which the doctrine of tropes and figures has occupied in systems of rhetoric; the over-anxious care which has been shown in giving names to a vast variety of them, and in ranging them under different classes, has often led persons to imagine, that if their composition was well bespangled with a number of these ornaments of speech, it wanted no other beauty –whence has arisen much stiffness and affectation. For it is, in truth, the sentiment or passion, which lies under the figured expression, that gives [a text] any merit.

3. Arguments and appeals to the intellect will only take you so far—you must reach your audience’s heart to truly persuade.

…[In] order to persuade, the orator must go farther than merely producing [intellectual] conviction; he must consider man as a creature moved by many different springs, and must act upon them all. He must address himself to the passions; he must paint to the fancy, and touch the heart and, hence, besides solid argument, and clear method, all the conciliating and interesting arts, both of composition and pronunciation, enter into the idea of eloquence…

It is the business of the philosopher to convince me of truth; it is the business of the orator to persuade me to act agreeably to it, by engaging my affections on its side.

4. When you introduce passion into a speech, do so very carefully. Watch out for “Dean Screams!

Without emotion in the speaker, eloquence, as was before observed, will never produce its highest effects; but at the same time, if the speaker lose command of himself, he will soon lose command of his audience too. He must never kindle too soon; he must begin with moderation: and study to carry his hearers along with him, as he warms in the progress of his discourse. For, if he runs before in the course of passion, and leaves them behind; if they are not turned, if we may speak so, in unison to him, the discord will presently be felt, and be very grating.

5. Remember that a great speaker does not emerge overnight, like a mushroom.

We must not imagine that it is by a sort of mushroom growth that one can rise to be a distinguished pleader, or preacher, or speaker in any assembly. It is not by starts of application, or by a few years preparation of study afterward discontinued, that eminence can be attained…This is the fixed law of our nature; and he must have a very high opinion of his own genius indeed, that can believe himself an exception to it.

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