Sunday, April 5, 2009

Benjamin Franklin and the Art of Persuasion. (Part one)

My children and I are reading the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin as part of our home grown leadership program. His writing style is simple, elegant, concise, and humorous. This manuscript is written to his son, and he shares the story of his life as if he is sitting in the room with him, casually conveying the intimate details of the defining moments of his life and the lessons he learned from them.

I thought I knew quite a bit about Benjamin Franklin and his achievements as an inventor, a diplomat, a printer and an author. I was not aware however, that underlying his undisputed genius, was an intense, self directed passion for the art of persuasion. I am inclined to believe this provides a simple explanation as to why his talents and contributions were so vast and legendary and why, during his own time, and even to this day, he is viewed as one of our most pre-eminent “thought leaders”.

The guiding principles of his life seemed to be to observe, to listen, to improve and to persuade, and he enthusiastically applied these principles to each of his notable endeavors. The first three principles, while significant, would have been fruitless without the fourth. He could observe, listen, and improve, but if he hadn’t developed his powers of persuasion, his improvements (i.e. inventions, literary works, and diplomacy) might not have been embraced.

I am finding it invaluable to encourage my children to see beyond the significant accomplishments of the leaders we study to the underlying principles which guided them. In the case of Benjamin Franklin, exposing my children to the persuasive part of his nature is like studying the basic ingredients for life mastery. Instead of following the lessons of a poorly written 5th grade reading and writing primer, they are learning first-hand, from the words actually written by him, in context of a the past which has shaped our culture as we know it.

As a mostly self-educated man, his autobiography reveals that he was an excellent listener and observer of events around him and that, having no formal curriculum; this is what motivated and directed his education. When he saw awkwardness, failure, or shortcomings in human nature or process, he called upon his guiding principles. The stories of his ingenious and self-directed methods of learning, and his sly attempts to get published, provided humor and examples of pure ingenuity. I could see the wheels turning in my children’s heads as they were listening with intensity. Instead of minds closing from boredom, they were opening from inspiration. It was a poignant lesson that they should move beyond “writing for the sake of writing,” striving first for thought leadership, and then for the mastery of persuasion.

Persuasion, whether written or spoken can be used for good or evil, to create or to destroy, to hinder or to heal. God has given us the gift of thought, and I believe we have the responsibility to take great care in crafting what we say and choosing the ideal communication format, be it poetry, prose, oration or conversation. I have spoken before about the importance of helping our children transcend knowledge to gain wisdom. For me, this kind of learning (straight from the source, so to speak) bridges the gap.

Regarding his view on the power of persuasion, Benjamin Franklin wrote…

… “and as the chief ends of conversation are to inform, or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well meaning sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive assuming manner that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us”…
And of his methods for learning he wrote…

“I continued this method for some few years, but gradually left it, retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence, never using when I advance anything that may possibly be disputed, the words, certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive, or I apprehend a thing to be so or so, It appears to me, or I should think it so or so for such and such reasons, or I imagine it to be so, or It is so if I am not mistaken.”

There are memorable lessons to be learned in these passages that apply to forming compelling thoughts and then arranging our words into persuasive communication. Benjamin Franklin confesses he didn’t naturally possess these skills. He studied, practiced and mastered them, and the stories he shares convey important concepts such as:

Repetition is the mother of skill.

Seek first to understand, not to be understood.

Men should be taught as if you taught them not.

My intent is not to recount the entire autobiography of Benjamin Franklin in this essay. If you are interested, I highly recommend this edition from the Easton Press for it was carefully and beautifully printed from the manuscript as Franklin wrote it, including his preliminary outline. Thank you, Mom and Dad for the beautiful gift!

The important message is that without his propensity and mastery of the powers of persuasion, this great man as he was known by his contemporaries, and as we remember him generations later, owed much of his success to his communication skills. Even when we are all grown up with our degrees adorning our walls and our business cards, it is my feeling that the world would become a better place if we would all continue to improve upon our communication skills. And, we cannot ignore the fact that in a world where “noise” comes at us from all directions, our children, even more so than ourselves, need to master the art of persuasion, for they are the thought leaders of tomorrow.

Stay tuned for my thoughts on how Benjamin Franklin would view our new world of social media.

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