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Speak Softly, and Carry a Big Idea

By Rix Quinn

I studied history in the Dark Ages, B.C. (Before Computers).

Most of those semesters began with Neanderthals, a group who didn't write much down because nobody had invented pencils. By spring, we"d advance to the "modern era, which meant about 1938.

I didn't pay much attention then, but I wish I had. Because we can still learn from historical figures, no matter where they are today.

Like, for instance:


This Greek philosopher believed that wisdom and knowledge built character. The more a person knew, the less likely he"d make a bad decision.

Socrates continually questioned his countrymen about their beliefs, suggesting they base ideas not on opinion, but on knowledge.

The great man's relentless search for truth riled some officials, who sentenced him to death by drinking hemlock.His last question, "Is this stuff poison? was sadly answered "yep."

The lesson: To find verifiable facts, one must question both herself and her research sources. If the research isn't creditable, it can create problems.


This author created plays that usually centered on a single heroic character who --in order to help humankind --chose an unpopular course of action.

Sophocles introduces us to the viability of contrarian thinking, and the value of constructing a story around a hero.

The lesson: Building research papers around (1) a single person or (2) a contrarian idea can yield interesting - and sometimes spectacular - results.


Do not confuse this with "middle-aged knights, because back then people rarely survived past about 37. And that's only if they worked out at a health club, and avoided folks with the plague.

But crusading knights -- who often encountered highway robbers-- created a unique currency we still use today.

They simply engraved their rings with their coats-of-arms. Merchants kept a master list of these insignias, and billed them accordingly.

Those enterprising merchants got paid quickly, too. Probably by over-knight mail.

The lesson: History's loaded with fascinating facts, and even trivial details can be turned into captivating reports.


Some claim this Renaissance figure was the brightest human who ever lived. Unfortunately, we cannot prove this, because his high school did not give college entrance tests.

Leonardo excelled in more fields than a hyperactive farmer. He painted...he sculpted...he studied astronomy and anatomy.

He's often credited with drawing the first bicycle, the first airplane, and the first helicopter. Were he still alive today, he"d likely have more frequent-flyer miles than anybody. And he"d probably ace so many AP tests he"d begin college as a professor.

The lesson: Whenever Leonardo had an inspiration, he"d write it down in a notebook. You can do the same, and your next idea could change the world.


This famous American preferred succinct writing, and his epigrams became part of our cultural heritage. Ben warned "He that speaks much is much mistaken, and "Here comes the orator, with his flood of words and his drop of reason."

Apprenticed as a printer's helper, Franklin studied the handbills and circulars his shop printed. When newsletters and newspapers began in the colonies, Franklin would submit anonymous letters or witty sayings under a pseudonym.

Each time he saw his work in print, he became more energized. And his creation of "Poor Richard's Almanac became a best seller in the colonies.

What attracted readers to him?

  1. He wrote simply - Franklin knew his audience, and focused on basic words and ideas.

  2. He wrote briefly - The Almanac emphasizes frugality, humility, and brevity. "Silence is not always a sign of wisdom, but babbling is ever a mark of folly, Franklin said.

  3. He wrote timelessly. Instead of addressing contemporary issues, Franklin spoke more about human traits, like this one on picking friends: "He that lies down with dogs shall rise up with fleas."

  4. He spoke of moral truths: "Glass, china, and reputation are easily cracked and never well mended."

  5. He used humor.

The lesson: Franklin's sayings are among the most quoted in history. From Ben, we learn that sometimes the shortest phrases make the longest impressions.

About The Author
Rix Quinn is the author of Words That Stick, a little reference book of writing tips for professionals and students who hate to write. It's available through your local bookstore, or on

Quinn may be contacted directly at 817-920-7999. His web site is

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