At university I binge-watched box sets of the the West Wing; my husband and I are currently rationing our last few episodes of House of Cards, and Primary Colors is one of my favorite films. But despite my obsession with White House-based political dramas, up until a few weeks ago, I had never visited the capital of the USA.
So when I heard about the Ragan Conference for speechwriters and executive communications professionals in Washington DC I had to go. It was the perfect excuse to combine work with pleasure; to meet some like-minded professionals and to do some sightseeing.
Washington DC is a fantastic place to visit if you like rhetoric. Numerous memorials celebrate the lives of famous speechmakers. And in many cases the speeches themselves are etched onto the walls of the memorials, by way of an epitaph.
In this new series of blogposts, I take a look at a famous speech by someone with a memorial I visited on my trip to DC. I ask why their speeches were so successful and what we can learn from their rhetorical style.
President Abraham Lincoln – The Gettysburg Address
The Gettysburg Address is one of the most famous speeches in American history. Lincoln delivered it in November 1863 at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, during the American Civil War. The whole text of the speech is chiseled into the walls of the Lincoln Memorial, where the former President sits in his chair, towering over the hoards of tourists that visit him every day.
So what can we learn from Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address about speechwriting?
The whole speech was less than three hundred words long. Lincoln understood the power of quality over quantity. He could have spent much longer talking about the sacrifice made by the soldiers; the cause of freedom and equality, and the rebirth of the nation. But he didn’t. He managed to eloquently cover these major themes in under two minutes. We’ve all been bored by verbose speakers who don’t know when to stop. So let’s take a leaf out of Lincoln’s book and be prudent with the time we spend on stage.
The purpose of the Gettysburg Address was to rededicate the Union and Lincoln used the metaphor of birth to signify the creation of the nation. He used phrases like ‘conceived in liberty’ and ‘a new birth of freedom’. Metaphors create powerful visual images that connect with peoples’ emotions. When we think about birth we think about new life, new hope and a new future; these were the ideas conjured in the minds of the audience by Lincoln’s words. We use metaphors all the time in our everyday speech, without really thinking about it. But if you have a section of a speech or a presentation that’s a bit dry, think about using some metaphors to paint a picture for the audience.
Tricolon is just a fancy word for the ‘power of three’. Lincoln closes with the phrase ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’. It’s a classic demonstration of just how memorable a list of three can be. No one quite knows why three is the magic number – it just is. Think about ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ or ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’. If you’ve got a list in a speech, try and make sure there are three items in it. It’s easy to do and it will immediately make your speech more impactful, compelling and memorable… see what I did there?!
Stay tuned for the second installment in this series, where I visit Martin Luther King’s memorial and speeches.
Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History, William Safire
Eloquence: The Elements of Eloquence, Mark Forsyth