10 Lessons Every Presenter Can Learn from America's Most Iconic Speech
Updated: Aug 22
Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is more than a venerable piece of history--it's a master class on presenting a poised, powerful speech.
Seven score and 12 years ago, the 16th president of the United States stood in a muddy field and made a two-minute speech that has been celebrated as one of the greatest of all time.
Abraham Lincoln's eloquent Gettysburg Address graces the walls of the Lincoln Memorial and inspired the opening words of Martin Luther King's equally famous "I Have a Dream" speech. It endures. And though few of us will have occasion to consecrate a battlefield, the qualities that make the Gettysburg Address so exceptional can help anybody deliver a more memorable, powerful presentation.
1. START STRONG
Though we don't know whether Abraham Lincoln warmed up the crowd with a witty anecdote, we do know that "Four score and 7 years ago" is a more arresting and memorable way of saying "In 1776."
Tip: Start with a powerful fact, image, or story that commands attention right away.
2. CREATE WITH CONTEXT IN MIND
Let's face it: putting speeches and presentations together is a lot of work. It's tempting to trot out the tried and true, perhaps with some minor tweaks. But Lincoln's speech is strongly rooted in, and perfectly tailored to, its unique context: "We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live."
Tip: Make each presentation you give feel alive and unique by including specific details that are deliberately chosen for the audience, the place, and the event.
3. INCLUDE VIVID IMAGERY
Although Lincoln didn't use visuals in the way that most modern presentations do, he used language to evoke emotion and mood in an equally powerful way. These words transport you to the battlefield, even reading them more than a century and a half later: "But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate--we can not consecrate--we can not hallow--this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract."
Tip: Vivid imagery and powerful visuals draw your listeners in and help them understand and remember your message.
4. BE HUMBLE
Lincoln keeps the focus squarely on the soldiers who gave their lives and the cause they fought for. The complete absence of ego lends power and gravity to his words: "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here."
Tip: We've all been in the audience when the presenter can't stop talking about how smart/clever/innovative/insightful he is. Don't be that guy.
5. MAKE IT ABOUT WE, NOT ME
On a related note, if you read the text carefully, you won't ever find the words I, me, or mine, in the Gettysburg Address, but you will notice more than a dozen occurrences of the words we, us, and our. Lincoln draws his audiences into a shared moment and appeals to them with a stirring call to action: "It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced."
Tip: Think of your presentation as a shared experience, and look for ways to actively include the audience and address their questions, needs, and feedback.
6. USE POETIC LANGUAGE
Though Lincoln's writing isn't overly flashy, there's an undeniable elegance to the language, with turns of phrase that establish pacing and flow. His rhythmic repetition of "We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow" is just one example.
Tip: If there's one idea you want to communicate (and there should be), look for ways to repeat it, visually and verbally.
7. REFERENCE PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE
Lincoln immediately grounds his speech in history, evoking the country's founders and deftly connecting their principles to the crisis at hand. He then outlines his own stirring vision for the future: "...we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain--that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom--and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Tip: Touching on where you've been, what's happening now, and what you want to happen next is a winning formula for nearly any presentation.
8. CLOSE THE LOOP
On this note, Lincoln's flowing finish echoes his opening lines--so beautifully, in fact, that many people mistakenly associate the poetic phrase "of the people, by the people, for the people" with the Declaration of Independence.
Tip: Tying back to your strong opener creates a sense of closure and helps reinforce your key message. And take special care not to close with any variation of "I know we're over time, but..."
9. KEEP IT SHORT
I've seen some PowerPoint slides with more words than Lincoln's entire, elegant speech. At a mere 278 words, it packs a lot of meaning into just a 10--10!--sentences. Lincoln could have said more, but he chose not to--and no doubt, he held his audience's attention, and the enduring admiration of posterity, as a result. (Case in point: Just before Lincoln spoke, the Honorable Edward Everett gave a two-hour oration that has been largely forgotten.)
Tip: It's always a good strategy to leave your audience wanting more, not wishing for a way to escape.
10. BE AUTHENTIC
Abraham Lincoln wrote several copies of his famous speech in his own handwriting. He didn't have a ghostwriter, a design team, or a corporate template. It was his heartfelt message to a wounded country, perfectly tailored to its time and place.
Tip: Your message will resonate more strongly if it comes from you, with your own stamp on it. Make it yours.