Wednesday, December 4, 2013

What to leave out: Speaker lessons from the Gettysburg Address

Sometimes, when the world is talking about a famous speech--as in the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address--it's helpful to sit back and listen to the commentary before weighing in. That's how I came to realize what speakers and speaker coaches should have been celebrating: The value of leaving things out of your speech.

Too often, the speakers I coach begin with a list of things that "must" be included in their speeches, talks or presentations: Logos. Thank-yous. Housekeeping details about what's happening next. Credentials. Client raves. Mentions of the name of their institution, operational unit, or CEO. Branding of all kinds. Special quotes from notable greats of the past. Something about their backgrounds. A re-read of the mission statement. A restatement of why we're here today, so the audience will know that the speaker knows what they know. Acknowledgments. Often, this happens when your colleagues read what you're going to say and feel a need to contribute. They ask, "Why didn't you mention the name of the center?" or "Shouldn't you note Fred's contributions?" You add in more stuff. The talk gets weighted down by something other than its focus.

In an analysis in the New York Times last week, Allen Guelzo says the success of the Gettysburg Address is due to what Lincoln left out:
It obeys the Churchillian dictum: Short words are best, and the old words when short are best of all. The address relies on crisp, plain vocabulary, over against the three-decker Latinate lexicon beloved of so many 19th-century school textbooks. Of some 270 words — there’s no recording — about two-thirds are single-syllable, and a half-dozen, four-syllable. Rarely has so much been compressed into such simple and uncomplicated elements....It makes no mention of slavery or secession or the Constitution, paints no picture of the great battle, and even fails to acknowledge the civilian politicians — David Wills of Gettysburg, Andrew G. Curtin, the governor of Pennsylvania — who had made the purchase of the cemetery acreage possible.
Stripped of all those extra duties, the speech then could do its simple task: To remember the fallen, those who had given their lives. There's poetry in that, too, as the absence of so many trimmings echoes the absence of the lost soldiers. Is your next speech as simple, focused and effective?

You can learn more about the leaving-in and taking-out process that created the address in historian Martin P. Johnson's book, Writing the Gettysburg Address, just published in October. Here's a review of the book--another bonus found by waiting after the celebration. From the publisher's description:
Johnson shows when Lincoln first started his speech, reveals the state of the document Lincoln brought to Gettysburg, traces the origin of the false story that Lincoln wrote his speech on the train, identifies the manuscript Lincoln held while speaking, and presents a new method for deciding what Lincoln's audience actually heard him say. Ultimately, Johnson shows that the Gettysburg Address was a speech that grew and changed with each step of Lincoln's eventful journey to the podium.
Here's video of President Bill Clinton reciting the address, to inspire you. Ken Burns is preparing a documentary about the address, and asked citizens and celebrities to upload video of themselves reciting it.

(Photo from Aranami's photostream on Flickr)

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