It was 150 years ago today that President Lincoln delivered his 268-272 word (depending on what you believe he said) address to an assembly outside Gettysburg, PA to bolster the war effort. The speech is now, of course, very famous, and regularly makes the Top Ten list of history’s speeches. Schoolchildren all over America memorize all or some of the speech. Virtually everyone can finish the phrase, “Four score…”
I have long been enamored with the story behind the speech, as much as the speech itself. Few people recognize or know that Lincoln’s speech was, in essence, the benediction to the event. He was NOT the headlining speaker of the day. He was just the speaker that people remember. Which would you rather be, the featured speaker or the one people recall? How you answer has implications to your weekly staff meeting, the company picnic, your sales presentation, and your church service this week.
Here are a few things Lincoln did that we can learn about speaking from Lincoln:
- Open with flair — “Four score and seven years ago…” was not some antebellum figure of speech and the way people talked back then. They would have been quite OK with a reference to “87” in his speech. But making them think/compute got their attention right away. And the fact that the quick computation revealed 1776 as the origin of the country and NOT the Constitution or the Presidency was insightful in its own right. Find a way to get people’s attention, QUICKLY.
- Be brief — Lincoln spoke just a few minutes. Fast enough that the official photographer could not get his equipment ready in time to snap a photo (LONG before the days of 6 frames-per-second digital cameras, photography took minutes to set up). After sitting through 2+ hours of program, brevity was appreciated, I’m sure. And schoolchildren required to memorize it appreciate they don’t have to remember something longer 🙂 If you can’t say it shorter, you probably shouldn’t be saying it longer.
- Have a repeatable structure — Lincoln used a favorite speech structure by using chronology, referring to the past, the present, and the future. (Four score and seven years ago… Now we are engaged… The world will little note, nor long remember). That’s something he could use to help deliver the speech, but more importantly the listener can use to understand and repeat the key elements of the speech.
A web search today will give you lots more to read about the speech. It’s a fascinating study.
You don’t know everything (about anything). Studying others who have done something great is a fantastic way to improve your own craft.
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