When I get ready to talk to people, I spend two-thirds of the time thinking what they want to hear and one-third thinking about what I want to say.
This quote from Abraham Lincoln is noted in Fletcher Dean’s new book on speechwriting: 10 Steps to Writing a Vital Speech, which I will review in my post on Monday, August 20.
Whether or not Lincoln spent that much time thinking about his audience, one needs only look at the Gettysburg Address to see how much he understood the people who would hear his speech—a key component of the success of any speech, then as now.
The other speaker that day in November 1863 was Edward Everett, who gave the official “Gettysburg Address,” the name Lincoln’s speech inherited only after the event. Everett’s speech was about two-hours long, typical for the times.
Although, it’s almost impossible for us to believe today, reportedly, he kept the attention of his audience—mostly by recounting, step-by-step, the battle that had taken place on that site a few months earlier. Today, most audiences get fidgety in about 15 minutes, shuffling in their seats, reading email, texting, and checking the time.
Few of us remember anything Everett said at Gettysburg. Many have never even have heard of him.
Lincoln, on the other hand, spoke for only two or three minutes, never mentioning the battle. Garry Wills says in his book on the speech, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America” that in 272 or so words, Lincoln “wove a spell that has not, yet, been broken—he called up a new nation out of the blood and trauma.”
Wills, who has described the Gettysburg Address as a masterpiece, notes that in it “Lincoln had proved to himself and others the virtues of economy in the use of words,” another good lesson to be learned by speechwriters and others who write.