Abraham Lincoln is undoubtedly one of the most admired U.S. Presidents. His leadership played a key role in ending slavery and preserving the Nation during the Civil War. All the more remarkable is the fact that Lincoln was born in a log cabin in rural Kentucky, and had almost no formal education.
What caused Lincoln’s meteoric rise from the son of a Kentucky farmer to President of the United States? A large part of it was no doubt his remarkable way with words.
Today, Lincoln is remembered for his masterfully crafted speeches and witty aphorisms (all in the days before politicians hired speechwriters, mind you).
The words he spoke have influenced America and the world for over 150 years. By studying the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, we can all add something valuable to our own arsenal of speaking skills.
1. Read Early, Read Often
A large part of Abraham Lincoln’s speaking ability stemmed from his lifelong love of reading. Despite his father not believing in the value of education, Lincoln read voraciously as a child.
Lincoln was never far from a book for the rest of his life, even though his formal schooling amounted to less than twelve months. Lincoln’s love of reading would come in quite handy later in his life.
During the early days Civil War, Lincoln – who had almost no military experience – turned to books to give himself a “crash course” in military strategy. This “crash course” no doubt helped him successfully lead the nation through its most precarious era.
2. Craft Your Words Carefully
Abraham Lincoln’s speeches have contributed some of the most memorable lines in American history, from “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” to “with malice towards none and charity for all.”
When writing your own speeches, it can be beneficial to pause and ask yourself “is there a better way I can say this?” Analyze each sentence, each paragraph, and the piece as a whole for flow, structure, and word choice.
If you find yourself getting too wrapped up in how you “think” you should sound, ask a friend or colleague for a fresh perspective. And remember, The best way to improve the skill of wordcraft is reading and listening to other speakers.
Being familiar with a large repertoire of speeches can give you inspiration and a foundation to build on while maintaining your originality.
3. Keep It Brief
There is perhaps no better example of a brief speech than Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Despite being only 271 words long, the Address is rich in memorable lines which remain relevant to this day.
From the initial “Four score and seven years ago…” to the concluding “… Government of the people, by the people, for the people…”, the Gettysburg Address shows better than perhaps no other speech in the English language that quality trumps quantity.
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, at 698 words, also stands out as short in an era when speeches would routinely run over an hour. In fact, before Lincoln’s fabled speech at Gettysburg, a man named Edward Everett gave an oration which lasted for over two hours.
Today, Mr. Everett’s speech has faded into obscurity, but Lincoln’s terse, concise, and moving Address lives on.
Abraham Lincoln stands as proof that anyone, no matter their origins, background, or education level, can become a great public speaker. All it takes is a healthy dose of dedication and practice. The next time you have to give a speech, remember the simple maxim often attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “Whatever you are, be a good one.”
My passion is helping others learn public speaking and improve their self-confidence. This has driven me to become a member of Learn to SpeakOut.
Whatever you are, be a good one. The best investment you can make is in yourself.