Lessons from the Language of Kings:
What Abe Lincoln, JFK, Reagan, Obama,
and MLK Can Teach You About Writing Copy

"Look wise, say nothing, and grunt."

— Sir William Osler

One August day, a guy went to Washington and gave a speech. It lasted only 16 minutes. Yet it was so powerful, we're still talking about it today.

This, of course, was Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, which helped change the course of nearly two centuries of American history.

A few years before, and with snow on the ground, a "kid" from Boston got up to accept his four-year hall pass for the White House.

"Ask not what your country can do for you," he said, "but what you can do for your country." This, of course, was JFK, in what was the fourth shortest and among the most memorable inaugural addresses.

Even further back, you've got Lincoln giving a two-minute speech so good, we carved it into a giant stone memorial.

With words, they all made history.

Of course, they also made people do things. Not unlike, by the way, you hope to do with the words in your sales copy.

So it begs the question, is there anything great speakers know that we could "steal" to use in print?

The answer, of course, yes there is.

Recently, rhetoric expert Max Atkinson wrote about some of these great secrets in an article for the BBC.

Let’s take a look at what he found …


No doubt you've heard bits of the "Ask not … " inaugural speech I mentioned earlier. What you might not know, however, is how much the success of that speech depended on a couple of 2,000-year-old rhetorical insights.

The first is a no-brainer: alliteration.

This is where you use the same letter sounds to start off closely-connected words. Used well, it can make words flow. But be careful. Too much and your writing will start to sound like a tongue twister or a nursery rhyme.

Better for us to borrow might be Kennedy's other trick, which was called the "Power of Contrasts."

With this one, you're putting two contrasting ideas against each other. It's like trying to force together magnets. The way one idea pushes against the other, it increases emphasis.

The "Ask not … " line is one good example. Another is the line, "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate." Or the line, "Signifying renewal as well as change."

In fact, in this one 14-minute speech, Kennedy averaged a contrast every 39 seconds. And you can bet not one of those contrasts was an accident.

How to use this concept in copy? Try lines that take them from the problem they don't want to the solution they do want, all in one phrase; e.g., "Imagine not just getting by on Social Security, but socking away retirement income faster than you spend it." Or "No more stiff knuckles, just pain-free mornings."


We'll credit this next trick — as Atkinson does — to Shakespeare's version of Marc Antony, who asked "Friends, Romans, [and his] Countrymen" to lend him their ears.

But you could look to Kennedy for this one too, since he was a master at using audience-targeting phrases. And remember, Kennedy was doing this just as television was giving leaders access to living rooms worldwide.

How to use in copy? Talk to your prospect like you understand who he or she is. What do you know about them?

One thing you know, or hope you do, is what kinds of solutions and products they're interested in. And maybe what problems they'd like to solve. So use that as identifying information, even at the start of your letter.

As in, "Dear Worried Investor" … "Dear Future Homeowner" … or an odd twist that might fit, like "Dear Lucky Parent" or "Dear Animal Lover" at the top of a fundraising letter.

And then try to continue showing how you understand where your audience is right now, throughout the sales letter.


Maybe it was his acting background, but Ronald Reagan leaned hard on his storytelling skills at the podium.

For any occasion, the so-called "Great Communicator" seemed to have a folksy tale in his kit bag.

Like all great storytellers, he kept the language colorful but simple. And held off just long enough on the big finish.

It's worth mentioning, by the way, that Reagan spent a lot of time polishing his persuasive speaking style … as a traveling pitchman for General Electric.

It's also worth mentioning, the actor in Reagan understood the value of plainspoken passion, even when others didn't.

For instance, his own speech-writing team didn't like a line he'd written into his famous Brandenburg Gate speech in 1987. But he gave it anyway, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

How to use in copy? This couldn't be easier. When you can, tell good stories. By "good" I mean relatable, relevant tales — tightly told — that both draw your reader's attention and relate something about your sales message, usually in an easy and even subtle way.


Love him or hate him, there's no doubt Obama has delivered some landmark speeches. And like Reagan, he also uses the storytelling secret. Maybe more often, though, Obama likes to rely on the "Power of Threes."

You've probably heard of this before and it's a simple idea, even if you haven't. In short, when you offer lists of anything, list them in threes.

Why? Because there's something that just feels complete about that number. For instance, in Obama's election victory speech in Chicago, he spoke for 10 minutes and gave three-part lists 29 times.

How to use in copy? This one is pretty simple too.

When you make a key point, try to give three very good and different kinds of proof behind it.

When you break away for testimonials, try giving three of those in a row too.

Or when you give a list of examples — like this one — also see how the rhythm feels when you limit it to threes.


Of course, no list of rhetorical razzle-dazzle would be complete without looking at the speech we used to open up this conversation, namely the "I have a dream" speech delivered by Martin Luther King.

What made it such a landmark hit?

After all, King was only 34 years old when he delivered it. He was also black at a time when that wasn't so easy in America. Of course, on the plus side, King was also a preacher. So when it came to banging pulpits and saying big things, he was already a seasoned pontificator.

What you might not know, however, was that the most quoted part of the speech wasn't supposed to be in it.

King's aides and advisors even told him to cut the "I have a dream" section, because he'd already used it in 25 other speeches and sermons.

But King decided otherwise. He added it back into his speech as his killer finish. And he did it on the fly.

That speaking device that we remember him using now is what you call an "anaphora," which is what you get when you repeat words in phrases, in a deliberate pattern.

King uses the "I have a dream … " sentences to re-emphasize a point. And all told, he uses that and other anaphora patterns eight times in the same speech.

In fact, King loved writing with repetition to make his point. Consider, one of the most common words in his speech was "freedom." He repeated it 20 times.

The next most frequent were "our" (used 17 times) and "nation" (used 10 times), followed by "justice" (used eight times).

To top it off, King used lots of vivid imagery, strong contrasts, and allusions too, just like so many other famous speakers, before and since.

How to use in copy? You probably already know that it can pay to find different ways to repeat your biggest promise, throughout a message.

You can even set up a rhythm like King did with the simple repeated phrase "I have a dream … " That is, instead of writing bulleted lists, try using phrase-repetition at the start of subsequent paragraphs.

For example, "If you travel a lot, this membership is certainly for you, because … " and "If your children travel with you, this membership is also for you … " and "Even if you just like to save money, this membership might be for you, because … "

You get the point.

In short, there's a reason speeches can change things. Simply put, it's because — like the sales copy you write — they're purposefully engineered for persuasion. And as long as they're stealing from us to get done what they want to happen, why not borrow back a little bit ourselves, am I right?

Editor’s note: See, I told you John was fascinating. And he knows copywriting, having had control after control, many of which you’ve probably already seen.

Come to Bootcamp and meet John. Plus, Mark Ford (aka Michael Masterson), Bob Bly, Mike Palmer, Drayton Bird, and a dozen more of the nation’s top marketers and copywriters. Oh, yes, I’d love to meet you while you’re there.

Click here to learn more about Bootcamp. And then let’s meet up in a little over four weeks!

Here’s some Glicken for you. John has a wonderful newsletter you can sign up for here.

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Published: September 23, 2013

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