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10 Tips from Lincoln on Writing a Kick-ass Speech

10 Tips from Lincoln on Writing a Kick-ass Speech
Lincoln

If you ever have to give a speech, unless you’re an accomplished public speaker, it’s often best to write your speech beforehand. Be prepared. And don’t just write a plain, boring old speech that anyone else can give any day of the week — make it a kick-ass speech, one that will be listened to and remembered.

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As a former speechwriter, I’ve studied many speechwriters and many public speakers. By far the best is Abraham Lincoln, and his best speech is the very famous Gettysburg Address — one of the best speeches ever, comparable to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and Hamlet’s soliloquoy.

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So what can we learn from Honest Abe, a man who wasn’t very good-looking but who knew the art of rhetoric better than any of the modern masters? Here are the 10 best things we can take away from him:

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  1. Keep it short. Every year, Congress is forced to listen to the President give his State of the Union Address for more than an hour. Lincoln’s speech followed a two-hour oration by Edward Everett that was 13,607 words long. Lincoln’s speech, by contrast, lasted for two minutes, and was 10 sentences (or 272 words) long. But it was much more powerful. Capture the key emotions and ideas you want to convey in as little time as possible. If you can deliver a two-minute speech, instead of a 30-minute droner, your audience will actually listen, and will love your for your brevity.
  2. Abandon the formalities. The President usually starts his State of the Union Address by acknowledging all the dignitaries, and thanking a million people. Many other speakers make this same mistake, and ruin their speeches. By the time you’re done acknowledging and thanking everyone, you’ve lost your audience. Go right into the meat of the issue, and your audience will pay attention. Lincoln skipped any kind of intro and began with the key to his speech.
  3. Have purpose. Don’t just get up to speak and make yourself sound good or your organization look good. Speak to communicate a message, and to get your audience to act. Lincoln did this by regalvanizing his Union’s purpose and resolve to win a war for the ideals of the forefathers of the United States.
  4. Connect to your audience’s hearts. A speech is not a logical argument, or a listing of accomplishments or facts or events. Lincoln knew his audience, and spoke to their emotions, by showing them that the men who died on the battlefield of Gettysburg did so for certain ideals, and asking them to ensure that those men did not die in vain.
  5. Speak to larger truths. While it isn’t best to be too grandiose, especially if you are speaking to small audience like your child’s 2nd grade class on career day, it’s best if you connect your ideas and words to larger causes and ideals, as Lincoln did when he connected the cause of the Union to the ideals of liberty and equality conceived by the forefathers of the nation.
  6. Speak to the larger audience. When you give a speech, ideally, it’s not just to those before you. Lincoln knew that the Gettysburg address was not really addressed to the audience before him, but to the nation as a whole (and perhaps to history). But his short little speech was reprinted across the nation, and it had an effect on many people. This happens today — speeches by Steve Jobs, for example, are not just for the audience at the conference, but to the entire world. Think about how your speech will affect a greater audience, and what message you want to convey to them. With the Internet, your speech can be communicated to many others.
  7. Use imagery. Lincoln used imagery for birth and life and death — “conceived” and “brought forth” and “perish”. It is important to do more than use bland words, but to create a picture in people’s minds through your words. The imagery, of course, should be related to your central theme.
  8. Recall more famous lines. Lincoln opened his speech with a line from a more famous (at that time) document, the Declaration of Independence (“that all men are created equal”). The reference brings with it many ideas and emotions associated with the Declaration of Independence and the men who signed it. Other famous lines that could be referenced include the Bible, Shakespeare, poetry, songs, books, other speeches. The references bring a lot more with them than just the phrase or quote you use, if your audience is familiar with it.
  9. Revise, revise, revise. Lincoln wrote several versions of his speech before settling on the final version. Each revision should cut out the unnecessary, develop the central idea, make the words flow more smoothly, and powerful develop imagery and phrases.
  10. End strong. Lincoln ended the Gettysburg Address with the line “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” And that line went down in history. End with a line people will remember, that contains the message you want them to remember, because, aside from the opening, it’s the most important line.

Leo Babauta blogs regularly about achieving goals and becoming productive through daily habits on Zen Habits. Read his articles on 10 Ways to Reduce Your Work Week, Zen To Done (ZTD): the Ultimate Simple Producitivity System, the Top 50 Productivity Blogs, doubling your productivity, keeping your inbox empty, clearing your desk, becoming an early riser, and the Top 20 Motivation Hacks.

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The Gentle Art of Saying No

The Gentle Art of Saying No

No!

It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

  1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
  2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
  3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
  4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
  5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
  6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
  7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
  8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
  9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
  10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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