Thursday, February 19, 2015

From Macbeth to cut-and-paste, exhibits look behind Lincoln's speeches

Lincoln, a month before his second inauguration.
Photo by Alexander Gardner
We pay attention to U.S. President Abraham Lincoln's speeches today, 150 years after his assassination, for a wide range of reasons. He was a frequent speaker: Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858 and Lincoln : Speeches and Writings : 1859-1865 together share hundreds of speeches and debates, and are the volumes I keep close to hand. Lincoln wrote all of his speeches himself, and made a distinction between his reading copies and those for publication. (For example, the Associated Press text of his delivered Gettysburg Address has subtle differences from the final published version; it's in the second volume, above.) His language was taut, soaring, or healing, by turns and by design. That rich eloquence was steeped in hours of reading and re-reading great texts.

More than that, Lincoln bucked trends to make his speeches work: In a time when the typical speech was a stem-winder of 2 hours or more in length, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is just 272 words, or a little more than two minutes long--the equivalent of giving a TED talk next to a filibuster. He didn't just know how to count words, he know how to make words count. I'm also going to guess that, in some ways, Lincoln's speaking style was closer to what rhetoric calls the "effeminate" or feminine style of speaking, more intimate, conversational, and with greater emotional tone. If so, it's a style he shared with Presidents Reagan and Clinton.

This year, to mark the anniversaries of his second inauguration and his assassination, two exhibits give us a look behind his speeches to their influences and even how Lincoln put his reading copies together. Already on in New York City at the Morgan Library, Lincoln Speaks is an entire exhibit devoted to the great man's speaking. You see his own copies of Shakespeare and other works that influenced him, speeches in his own neat handwriting, and how later presidents like FDR aligned themselves with Lincoln in their own speeches, bringing the material full circle. You can find a complete online version of the exhibit with images of all the documents and the interpretive material.

And in early March, for just four days, the Library of Congress will display Lincoln's second inaugural address, famous for the line, "With malice toward none, with charity for all." From the library's announcement:
Visitors will be able to view all four manuscript pages in Lincoln’s own handwriting; see his two-columned reading copy, comprised of text cut and pasted from the printer’s proof; and view photographs, a contemporary news account of the inauguration and an assessment of the speech by abolitionist and human-rights leader Frederick Douglass, all from the Library’s collections....The March display will allow visitors to see not only those documents but also major collection items placed on public view in the ongoing exhibition "The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom" including the "I Have a Dream" speech by Martin Luther King Jr. and several items on special display from the collection of civil-rights pioneer Rosa Parks, including her Presidential Medal of Freedom.
That's a lot of public-speaking greatness in one place, for just four days. This article takes a closer look at the cut-and-paste work Lincoln did to create his two-column reading copy. That alone is a great delivery tip to steal from a great speaker: Have you ever tried a two-column reading copy?

I saw the Morgan Library exhibit on the day it opened last month, and I'm so fortunate to live in Washington, where it will be easy for me to get in line for the Library of Congress exhibit. I don't just get excited about seeing these speech texts because I've written, coached, and delivered speeches, but because they bring home in a way nothing else can the enormity of work that went into each speech. Every word is seen as chosen, edited, and delivered for a purpose. These words helped prevent my country from failing its experiment in democracy. How much more weight can words have?

(You can see the photo of Lincoln here in Washington at the National Portrait Gallery.)

Come to my pre-conference workshop at the Spring Speechwriters and Business Communicators Conference in Cambridge, UK, this April. What goes into a TED-quality talk will help speakers, speechwriters and conference organizers understand how to craft and deliver a talk in the style of TED, whether you're getting ready for a TEDx conference or just a presentation in this popular style. Go to this link  for more details on what's included, as well as a significant discount for readers of The Eloquent Woman. The workshop is on 15 April, and the conference is 16-17 April. Please join me!

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