Useful Advice from Abe Lincoln That is Still Relevant Today

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Abe Lincoln may have been dead for over 150 years and have lived in a very different world to ours, but much of the wisdom he shared and left behind is still very relevant today.

Advice from Lincoln

Make your enemies into friends. Lincoln had an enormous talent for turning around even his fiercest opponents. “He was able to keep his eye on the prize, which means he was able to disassociate himself from personal attacks.” No matter how cruelly his foes savaged him, Lincoln repeatedly rose above the fray, using humor and warmth to disarm his enemies and refocus everyone on the agenda at hand. Instances of his temper showing were rare.

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Be firm, but play nice. Lincoln was no pushover. Despite his legendarily laconic style, Lincoln had a single-minded ability to steadily exert political pressure on others, inexorably pushing them toward the action he wanted, or rather he felt the nation needed. And yet, he did so in a way that left others feeling unthreatened. “He could talk without anger, he could talk without heat to his political opponents.”

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Take the long view. Lincoln clearly saw the future in a way that many of his contemporaries could not. He imagined not merely the end of slavery, but also the repercussions that would follow for freed African Americans, southern citizens, and northerners as well. He knew resolution might take many years, and yet he tried to point the politics of the day in the proper direction. “He believed firmly, I think, that if we put our heads to it and we put our wills to it, the American people could be that shining example of equality for the world.”

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10 Tips from Lincoln on Writing a Speech

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 you for your brevity.

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.

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 re-galvanizing his Union’s purpose and resolve to win a war for the ideals of the forefathers of the United States.

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.

Speak to larger truths. While it isn’t best to be too grandiose, especially if you are speaking to a 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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