Lessons in Persuasion from the Movie “Lincoln”


My wife and I have spent the last few years out of the loop when it comes to popular movies. We’ve recently decided that we would go back and watch some of the best movies that have come out in the past 5 or 6 years. One of those movies that has always been on our list is the 2012 movie Lincoln.

Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln tells the story of President Abraham Lincoln during his final term in office. Faced with a bloody and brutal civil war, President Lincoln must navigate the politics of war while attempting to get the 13th amendment passed to end slavery in America forever.

The inspiring story centers around President Lincoln sparring with his political opponents, his family, and those who fundamentally oppose the amendment  while trying to hold the nation together during it’s most turbulent time. It’s a fantastic movie and I would certainly recommend it for anyone who likes history and has an affinity towards powerful movies.

While President Lincoln appears to be a simple man who speaks in parables and stories, we can learn a lot about the art of closing deals from the film. More specifically, from his methods in negotiation, persuasion, and perseverance.

Set Huge Goals

The first thing that we see is that Lincoln has set some rather extraordinary goals for himself. These are not easily obtainable goals either – he is essentially looking to end the bloodiest war that America had ever seen, keep the Union together during the worst political and constitutional crisis of it’s time, and abolish slavery (something that most of the economy was dependent on) forever. Those goals alone would make anyone shy away from the challenge, but he rose to the occasion and committed himself to meeting those goals.

In business, the first thing you should be doing to help you close deals is to set goals for yourself that are big. By thinking big-picture, you will see that you can go further and accomplish more than you previously thought. Whatever is at the forefront of your mind, you’ll probably accomplish. Make your goals extraordinary and accomplish the extraordinary.

Seek Help from your Teammates and Coworkers

Lincoln did not do any of the above alone. That would effectively be an absolute dictatorship, which really doesn’t even exist if you think about it. That’s not how Lincoln operated. He was dependent on his cabinet and his advisers to help him reach those goals. The argument can be made that had his team not been fully committed to his vision, none of that would have been accomplished.

First, surround yourself with those who share your same goals and values. Next, work with them for a mutual victory. The term “teamwork makes the dream work” is cliche’, but it’s very relevant and true.

Credit: DreamWorks Pictures

Make Your Point Relatable

When Lincoln wanted to persuade someone that abolishing slavery should be the number one priority, he would speak through stories and examples that made it “true” for his audience. A great example if this in action was when he was talking to the engineer in the war room about Elucid’s first common notion, being that things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other. He states that this truth is “self-evident”. He then uses the same logic to apply to people in slavery and how they are equals to everyone else. He concluded that a 2,000 year old mathematical principle should be relevant here.

When you are in a sales presentation, play to your audience. Use stories and third party examples to make your point understandable for your prospect.

Appeal to the Emotional Side

When Lincoln needed to procure votes for his 13th amendment from opposing political house members, he would often use a strategy that played to the emotional side of his audience too. When he was attempting to persuade the prejudiced Mr. Hutton to vote yes, he said “I’d change that in you if I could, but that’s not why I come. I might be wrong, Mr. Hutton, but I expect… Colored people will most likely be free, and when that’s so, it’s simple truth that your brother’s bravery, and his death, helped make it so. Only you can decide whether that’s sense enough for you, or not.”

Pulling at the heart strings can be very beneficial during the sales presentation. That’s the part of the brain where people get “moved” and truly persuaded to do something. A great way to work on this is to remember your “why”. Here is a great TED talk by Simon Sinek on how you can start with your why,

You have to be Passionate about what you are Selling

For Lincoln, ending slavery was the most important thing that we could have done with his presidency. When his cabinet members were trying to persuade him that pushing it in the house before the war ended would definitely lose him the votes, he responded with ” We’ve stepped out upon the world stage now. Now! With the fate of human dignity in our hands. Blood’s been spilled to afford us this moment now! Now! Now! And you grouse so and heckle and dodge about like pettifogging Tammany Hall hucksters!” For him, this was it, and all else was not as important.

Whatever you are selling or pitching has to be the single greatest thing in the world. If there is even a shred of doubt in your mind that what you are selling isn’t worth it, it will amplify to the prospect and they will notice. Once you believe it, closing the sale will come much more easier.

Have a Strategy for when you hear “No”

In probable the most famous quote from the movie, Lincoln says the following: “A compass, I learned when I was surveying, it’ll… it’ll point you True North from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp… What’s the use of knowing True North?”

If you know that your destination is a closed sale, but have no plan of action for handling objections or no strategy if you get asked a tricky question, you won’t ever see your destination. Having a strategy set up and rehearsed ahead of time will make closing sales incredible easier.

Credit: DreamWorks Pictures

When People Tell You It’s Impossible, Don’t Listen to Them

People thought Lincoln was crazy for wanting to push the amendment to the house before the end of the war. There were certain political pressures and constitutional unknowns about how civil war affected amendments that were passed while the Confederacy was separated. Also, the issue of state laws were a huge hurdle to overcome. Many people, including most of his most trusted colleagues, assumed that this task was simply impossible. Lincoln would hear none of it, and kept on fighting until it was accomplished.

If you set a huge goal for yourself, people will tell you that it cannot be done. People like to say that because it’s easier to assume failure than to rise to the occasion and come out victorious. You have to believe in yourself if you want to close sales and break records. That’s what top performers do. You can too.

Lincoln was a fantastic film and I 100% recommend that you see it. While it certainly is not a movie about sales or business, watching Lincoln negotiate, persuade, and accomplish his goals is something that we can all learn from.



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Author: Jason Karaman

Hello! I’m a marketing, sales, and customer service author, blogger and doer. I live in the South Carolina Lowcountry with my wife. I enjoy reading, writing, hiking, kayaking, and all things beach. For media inquiries, send an email to JasonKaraman@ExpertCaller.com

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