Timeless communication lessons from the Declaration of Independence

The document that cast the vision for our nation more than 240 years ago has plenty to teach communicators today about eloquence, passion, persuasion and style.

Writing lessons from The Declaration of Independence

America was founded on clear, forceful communication.

We remember the battles, the Brits and Benjamin Franklin, but we so often forget the clarion call that launched our new nation into being: The United States Declaration of Independence.

Modern eyes might find this missive musty, archaic and insensitive. (I imagine most 243-year-old artifacts are.) However, timeless truths can be plucked from this remarkable document—especially for those who communicate for a living.

Let’s review four takeaways from the declaration that stand the test of time:

1. All men (and women) are created equal.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Perhaps the most famous words of the declaration, these embody the essence of America’s highest ideals. Sadly, we seem to have lost sight of this profound notion.

The proliferation of social media and 24/7 connectivity has made it easy to dehumanize people. We’re quick to mock, slander and humiliate. Executives issue layoff notices that read more like furniture recalls.

We’ve never been more connected nor had more ways to interact with each other, yet we’ve forgotten how to communicate with respect and dignity. We write viciously, as if all people were not created equal.

Trolls, politicians and vapid celebs don’t make it easy, but the declaration offers a good reminder of every single person’s unique, unalienable rights.

2. Use facts and data to back your claims.

To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.

My favorite portion of the declaration is the “Crimes of the King” section, wherein the writers list the many misdeeds of King George III (27 in total). It’s like the world’s first Festivus “Airing of Grievances.”

Image result for festivus airing of grievances gif

As opposed to just railing against Great Britain, citing vague injustices or complaining about how it sucks to be subjugated, the declaration’s authors—in great detail—documented the king’s “repeated injuries and usurpations” of American freedoms. They cited specific instances, laws and actions that exposed King George’s tyrannical rule and justified the call for sovereignty.

Hard facts trump hot takes every time. Data will always carry more heft than opinions, assumptions and assertions.

3. Have a specific purpose for your piece, and make it snappy.

The declaration was written to announce our renunciation of British rule and to provide concrete reasons for asserting our independence:

… that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.

What’s the purpose of the piece you’re working on? That’s a question every communicator should ask before putting pen to paper or fingers to keys (or quill to parchment, for that matter).

As for brevity, the Declaration of Independence clocks in at a tidy 1,458 words. If the Founding Fathers managed to edit down a document of this magnitude that tightly, surely you can trim some fat off that blog post or white paper?

Make your work concise so your readers can exercise their freedom and independence on more pressing matters.

4. Put your name(s) on it.

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Can you imagine the politicians of today making such a solemn pledge of solidarity—about anything? Furthermore, how many of us have the gumption, passion or belief to stand so firmly behind something we’ve written? Many today are only capable of mustering courage when hiding behind the veil of anonymity. The threat of social media shaming has cowed many into silence.

Fifty-six people signed their names to the Declaration of Independence, despite the fact that it would make them party to a treasonous act. Take accountability for your work and your message. Own it. Take a stand for something, and put your name to it. If you can find 55 others to co-sign it, even better.

Today we are fortunate to live in a country where we’re able to communicate freely (for now, at least). It all started with a group of people signing a bold declaration.

This post originally ran on Ragan in 2017.


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