How To Write A Speech Like Abe Lincoln Did

by drjim on May 16, 2017

Abe really knew how to write a short and powerful speech

Abe really knew how to write a short and powerful speech
Image Credit: Mark Smith

When it comes time to write your next speech, will you be trying to copy anyone’s style? I think in most cases the answer is no. We’re just trying to write the best speech that we can. However, because so many other people have written so many great speeches, maybe we should take the time to pick someone who’s style impresses us and whom we’d like to emulate. Now the big question is who? I would like to make a recommendation: Abe Lincoln.

It’s All About Abe

I can almost hear you thinking – why Abe Lincoln? He’s been dead for a very long time. Well, yes, but when he was living he was living through some very, very tough times. Remember that the American Civil War started and ended under his presidency. He had to make a lot of very tough decisions and then he had to explain both his decisions and why he had made them to audiences that didn’t have CNN or Fox News to help them understand what was going on. In all honesty, all Abe really had to work with were his speeches.

A great example of one of Abe’s speeches that successfully accomplished a great deal was his Gettysburg address. This speech was delivered by Lincoln while the American Civil War was still going on. He gave this speech four and a half months after the Union armies defeated those of the Confederacy at the Battle of Gettysburg. Pretty much everyone agrees that his carefully crafted address was one of the greatest and most influential statements of national purpose.

In just over two minutes, Abe reiterated the principles of human equality that were a part of the Declaration of Independence and identified the Civil War as a struggle for the preservation of the Union despite the secession crisis, with “a new birth of freedom” that would bring true equality to all of U.S. citizens. Lincoln also redefined the Civil War as a struggle not just for the Union, but also for the principle of human equality. Wow – somehow he fit all of that into a very short speech!

Making Your Next Speech Mean Something

So, if you want your next speech to mean something, what can you learn from Lincoln’s speech? The first thing to realize is that his speech was short – it was less than 300 words. What this means for us is that our next speech does not have to be long in order to be effective. What this really means for those of us who use the first 300 words of our speech to just get started is that we need to start to practice the art of brevity. Keep it short and you won’t lose your audience’s attention.

The next thing that you’ll want to do in your speech is to start things out by talking about something that both you and your audience can agree on. Abe did this by talking about what our fathers did four score and 7 years ago: they built a country. Everyone had to agree with that statement and that’s when Abe knew that he had them – they were already nodding in agreement, now he could move on to the more controversial stuff and they’d come along for the ride.

I’m not going to say that Abe was a professional speechwriter, but he sure did know his stuff. In his Gettysburg speech he made use of the rule of three where you use three examples of something to drive your point home. Abe knew that for some unknown reason, there seems to be something almost magical about using three words together and so he used this technique to great success. Think about what you are talking about and find your groups of three words that sum up what you are trying to say at any given point in time and share these phrases with your audience. They’ll better understand what you are telling them.

What All Of This Means For You

We’d all like to find ways to become better speakers. One way to go about doing this is to become a better speech writer. If we want to improve the way that we write speeches, then perhaps we should find someone who does this well and then try to emulate their style. My recommendation is that we take a look at how Abe Lincoln wrote his speeches and try to be more like him.

One of Abe’s defining characteristics of his speeches is that he really knew how to get to the point. His famous Gettysburg speech contained less than 300 words. In order to hold on to our audience’s attention, we need to learn how to be brief also. Abe also knew that if he wanted to get his audience to agree with him, he needed to get them nodding. To accomplish this, he started his speech with a point that everyone would agree with before he got to the more controversial stuff. Finally, Abe knew about the rule of threes. When he wanted to make a point, he’d identify three words that supported what he wanted to say and then use them in sequence. This made his idea stick in his audience’s minds.

Yes, Abe has been dead for quite some time. However, he was a masterful speech writer and we can still learn a great deal from him. If we take the time to study the Gettysburg Address, we can discover a number of different speech writing techniques that can make our speeches better. Spend some time with Abe and you’ll be a better speech writer for having done so.

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Public Speaking Skills™

Question For You: How important do you think repetition is when you are trying to get your point across?

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Note: What we talked about are advanced speaking skills. If you are just starting out I highly recommend joining Toastmasters in order to get the benefits of public speaking. Look for a Toastmasters club to join in your home town by visiting the web site www.Toastmasters.org. Toastmasters is dedicated to helping their members to understand the importance of public speaking by developing listening skills and getting presentation tips. Toastmasters is how I got started speaking and it can help you also!

What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

One of the most difficult things for a speaker to realize when we are giving a speech is what will not be controlling the impact of our speech. We spend so much time working on exactly what words we want to say and then we seem to spend just as much time working on the slides that we’ll use to support those words because we understand the importance of public speaking that we think that by doing this we have all of the bases covered. It turns out that we don’t. Instead, one of the most import parts of any speech is one of the parts that it’s all too easy to overlook – eye contact.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Just looking May 22, 2017 at 7:20 am

Did anyone else notice the irony of how long this article was? He wrote a 7-paragraph article about brevity then rewrote it in the last 3 paragraphs. I feel that he’s accidentally pasted an earlier draft in the final version.

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drjim May 26, 2017 at 11:35 am

So it’s just whatever it takes to make the point. The key message was really that a powerful and effective speaker, Abe Lincoln, was sparing in his use of words. That’s a lesson that we can all learn from…

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