Lincoln and the Lessons of Stories


I recently saw the movie Lincoln, a little late – I know, but just indulge me.

During the movie, I was struck by Abraham Lincoln as storyteller.  Lincoln as a skilled storyteller is general knowledge, but actually seeing it in film made it more meaningful for me.  If I had not been taking a class on digital storytelling, I might have vaguely noted that he liked to tell jokes and stories and just moved on, but I found myself paying particular attention to when he told a story, watched how he was portrayed during the telling, and speculated as to why he told it at times.

Abraham Lincoln

Photo credit: Library of Congress

Some stories were applied as purposeful evasions – meant to point to answers without directly providing ones.  Walt Whitman praised Lincoln’s skilled use of stories as “weapons.”  At other times, they were used to put things into a different perspective and get the listeners to draw their own conclusions.  Lincoln understood that stories are “economical” and “sticky”- concepts that have come up in multiple readings for our class.  A good story can capture people’s attention right from the beginning and quickly get to the point allowing listener’s to fill-in the blanks in their minds while the teller focuses on the overall message – leading the proverbial horse to water.  Stories are easy to remember – and repeat.

At other times, his stories didn’t seem to have a point beyond the joke, some little bit of humor to inject into tense situations.  Lincoln is quoted as saying “if I did not laugh I should die.”  So maybe his jokes were not meant to be much more than a release – something to help him cope.  But, I kept thinking about a study by Princeton University in 2010 that found that a listener’s mind actually syncs with the teller’s mind as a story is being told – an instance of “neural coupling”.   I continue to wonder if those humorous anecdotes and jokes did more beyond relieving a bit of tension.  I wonder if they actually set people up to be more receptive to whatever Lincoln needed to communicate during that discussion by literally syncing up with the listeners – a mind meld – to make them more receptive to what would follow.

Talk about being on the same wavelength and getting on the same frequency…

Who knew that Abraham Lincoln was into neuroscience?

Further reading:

Abraham Lincoln’s Classroom:  Abraham Lincoln’s Stories and Humor –

Stories of Speakers and Writers:  Abraham Lincoln the Storytelling President –

Discover:  Study:  The Brains of Storytellers and Their Listeners Actually Sync Up  –

PNAS:  Speaker–listener neural coupling underlies successful communication –


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