Thomas Jefferson would have been comfortable on Twitter. He would have been really good at writing short, provocative tweets that make people think differently.
Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence is the most persuasive document in American history. Its creation contains valuable lessons for any leader who wants to sell ideas more effectively.
“The key to Jefferson’s ability to persuade was his passion for the cause,” writes law professor Arthur L. Rizer in his book, Jefferson’s Pen. Passion is everything. A leader cannot persuade without an unshakeable belief and an unquenchable enthusiasm for a topic. Jefferson was convinced that people should be free to govern themselves. He also had an enthusiasm for the written word and became a voracious reader, which made him a stronger writer.
Jefferson kept detailed notes and wrote down passages he liked from other writers. He even asked for editing advice. Benjamin Franklin suggested the phrase “self-evident” in the Declaration of Independence. It was one of 50 edits that were made to Jefferson’s original draft.
Great communicators read many books from a variety of authors and across a range of genres. Over the past year, I’ve interviewed outstanding communicators in a variety of fields: CEOs, trial lawyers, military leaders, and entrepreneurs. The best communicators are readers, synthesizing ideas from different fields and applying those ideas to their topic.
Thomas Jefferson was not considered a great orator or public-speaker, likely because he was ‘soft-spoken’ which presented a serious hurdle at a time with no sound amplifiers. Jefferson compensated for his weakness and committed himself to becoming a better writer. John Adams recognized Jefferson’s skill as a writer and suggested that he draft the explanation for breaking free of the British empire. “You can write ten times better than I,” Adams told Jefferson.
Rizer suggests that Jefferson was a great ‘hook writer,’ creating the lines that draw you in and keep you reading. For example, Jefferson didn’t open his draft with a list of grievances against King George III. Those came later. Instead Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” The line was radical, subversive, shocking, and irresistible. Although the question of whether common people could govern themselves had been discussed in public debates, Jefferson stated it as fact.
Persuasive communicators don’t write in passive language. They take a stand and argue forcefully for it.
Thomas Jefferson wrote for the ear, and for good reason. Although we celebrate the ratification of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, the other important date is four days later. On July 8, 1776, the declaration was read publicly on street corners. It had to be written in simple, brief sentences that were easy to remember, easy to read, and pleasing to hear.
Like great writers throughout history, Jefferson was a fan of the rhetorical device — triads, often called ‘the rule of three.’ Jefferson didn’t write that we have eighteen ‘unalienable rights.’ He gave us three: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The concluding sentence of the Declaration reads: “We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”
The last sentence is an example of parallel structure, another ancient rhetorical technique. The list of grievances against the king are also listed in parallel structure, adding weight and power to each one as they’re read. Imagine the first time colonists heard it read aloud as the grievances kept piling up, some twenty-seven in all. Jefferson began:
“He has refused his Assent to Laws…
“He has forbidden…
“He has refused…
and on, and on, and on.
More than two thousand years ago, Aristotle said that the art of persuasion required pathos, the appeal to emotion. Jefferson’s style ignited people’s passions and emotions. He was a master of pathos.
A great scene in the television miniseries John Adams with Paul Giamatti is when Adams (Giamatti) reads Jefferson’s first draft. “This is altogether unexpected,” he says to Jefferson. “Not only a declaration of our independence, but the rights of all men. This is well said, sir. Very, very well said.”
Rizer suggests that great trial attorneys have learned from Jefferson’s writing — persuasion isn’t simply a recitation of facts. Persuasion requires connecting words to a broader theme that inspires to embrace a big, bold vision. “A good attorney will open with a larger theme, suggesting that the trial itself is about something larger than the facts of the case itself,” writes Rizer. “Having a vision for the future will give you a fixed target. It will also give others hope for a better tomorrow. And hope is a powerful thing for anyone who wishes to persuade.”
It’s instructive to remember that Jefferson left explicit instructions that only three of his achievements were to be inscribed on his tombstone “and not a word more.” They were: “Author of the Declaration of Independence” and of “The Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom” and “Father of the University of Virginia.”
Jefferson chose to focus on writing for two of his three greatest achievements — in his mind. Left out is the fact that Jefferson served as the third president of the United States and, while at it, acquired the Louisiana territory, doubling America’s size overnight for less than three cents an acre.
Ideas matter and Jefferson knew that communicating ideas persuasively could change the world.