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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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Leo Babauta

Founder of Zen Habits and expert in habits building and goals achieving.

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Last Updated on December 3, 2019

10 Life Lessons You’d Better Learn Early on in Life

10 Life Lessons You’d Better Learn Early on in Life

There are so many lessons I wish I had learned while I was young enough to appreciate and apply them. The thing with wisdom, and often with life lessons in general, is that they’re learned in retrospect, long after we needed them. The good news is that other people can benefit from our experiences and the lessons we’ve learned.

Here’re 10 important life lessons you should learn early on:

1. Money Will Never Solve Your Real Problems

Money is a tool; a commodity that buys you necessities and some nice “wants,” but it is not the panacea to your problems.

There are a great many people who are living on very little, yet have wonderfully full and happy lives… and there are sadly a great many people are living on quite a lot, yet have terribly miserable lives.

Money can buy a nice home, a great car, fabulous shoes, even a bit of security and some creature comforts, but it cannot fix a broken relationship, or cure loneliness, and the “happiness” it brings is only fleeting and not the kind that really and truly matters. Happiness is not for sale. If you’re expecting the “stuff” you can buy to “make it better,” you will never be happy.

2. Pace Yourself

Often when we’re young, just beginning our adult journey we feel as though we have to do everything at once. We need to decide everything, plan out our lives, experience everything, get to the top, find true love, figure out our life’s purpose, and do it all at the same time.

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Slow down—don’t rush into things. Let your life unfold. Wait a bit to see where it takes you, and take time to weigh your options. Enjoy every bite of food, take time to look around you, let the other person finish their side of the conversation. Allow yourself time to think, to mull a bit.

Taking action is critical. Working towards your goals and making plans for the future is commendable and often very useful, but rushing full-speed ahead towards anything is a one-way ticket to burnout and a good way to miss your life as it passes you by.

3. You Can’t Please Everyone

“I don’t know the secret to success, but the secret to failure is trying to please everyone” – Bill Cosby.

You don’t need everyone to agree with you or even like you. It’s human nature to want to belong, to be liked, respected and valued, but not at the expense of your integrity and happiness. Other people cannot give you the validation you seek. That has to come from inside.

Speak up, stick to your guns, assert yourself when you need to, demand respect, stay true to your values.

4. Your Health Is Your Most Valuable Asset

Health is an invaluable treasure—always appreciate, nurture, and protect it. Good health is often wasted on the young before they have a chance to appreciate it for what it’s worth.

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We tend to take our good health for granted, because it’s just there. We don’t have to worry about it, so we don’t really pay attention to it… until we have to.

Heart disease, bone density, stroke, many cancers—the list of many largely preventable diseases is long, so take care of your health now, or you’ll regret it later on.

5. You Don’t Always Get What You Want

“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” – John Lennon

No matter how carefully you plan and how hard you work, sometimes things just don’t work out the way you want them to… and that’s okay.

We have all of these expectations; predetermined visions of what our “ideal” life will look like, but all too often, that’s not the reality of the life we end up with. Sometimes our dreams fail and sometimes we just change our minds mid-course. Sometimes we have to flop to find the right course and sometimes we just have to try a few things before we find the right direction.

6. It’s Not All About You

You are not the epicenter of the universe. It’s very difficult to view the world from a perspective outside of your own, since we are always so focused on what’s happening in our own lives. What do I have to do today? What will this mean for me, for my career, for my life? What do I want?

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It’s normal to be intensely aware of everything that’s going on in your own life, but you need to pay as much attention to what’s happening around you, and how things affect other people in the world as you do to your own life. It helps to keep things in perspective.

7. There’s No Shame in Not Knowing

No one has it all figured out. Nobody has all the answers. There’s no shame in saying “I don’t know.” Pretending to be perfect doesn’t make you perfect. It just makes you neurotic to keep up the pretense of manufactured perfection.

We have this idea that there is some kind of stigma or shame in admitting our limitations or uncertainly, but we can’t possibly know everything. We all make mistakes and mess up occasionally. We learn as we go, that’s life.

Besides—nobody likes a know-it-all. A little vulnerability makes you human and oh so much more relatable.

8. Love Is More Than a Feeling; It’s a Choice

That burst of initial exhilaration, pulse quickening love and passion does not last long. But that doesn’t mean long-lasting love is not possible.

Love is not just a feeling; it’s a choice that you make every day. We have to choose to let annoyances pass, to forgive, to be kind, to respect, to support, to be faithful.

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Relationships take work. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s incredibly hard. It is up to us to choose how we want to act, think and speak in a relationship.

9. Perspective Is a Beautiful Thing

Typically, when we’re worried or upset, it’s because we’ve lost perspective. Everything that is happening in our lives seems so big, so important, so do or die, but in the grand picture, this single hiccup often means next to nothing.

The fight we’re having, the job we didn’t get, the real or imagined slight, the unexpected need to shift course, the thing we wanted, but didn’t get. Most of it won’t matter 20, 30, 40 years from now. It’s hard to see long term when all you know is short term, but unless it’s life-threatening, let it go, and move on.

10. Don’t Take Anything for Granted

We often don’t appreciate what we have until it’s gone: that includes your health, your family and friends, your job, the money you have or think you will have tomorrow.

When you’re young, it seems that your parents will always be there, but they won’t. You think you have plenty of time to get back in touch with your old friends or spend time with new ones, but you don’t. You have the money to spend, or you think you’ll have it next month, but you might not.

Nothing in your life is not guaranteed to be there tomorrow, including those you love.

This is a hard life lesson to learn, but it may be the most important of all: Life can change in an instant. Make sure you appreciate what you have, while you still have it.

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Featured photo credit: Ben Eaton via unsplash.com

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