Learn The Gettysburg Address (But Don’t Try To Memorize Your Own)

Memorizing you own speech is almost never a good idea. Reciting something word for word usually sounds stiff and unnatural, and can be a disaster for speakers who forget their place in the middle and can’t get back on track without starting over from the beginning.

But this video accompanying Ken Burns’ “Learn the Address” project is a good way to introduce kids (and the rest of us) to a bit of history by encouraging them to memorize the Gettysburg Address. Which is a pretty manageable exercise since it’s less than two minutes long and so much of the language is already familiar to most people. It’s also kind of fun to see who does well with their line readings (generally the newsreaders and politicians) and who doesn’t quite manage the gravitas (Taylor Swift) to pull it off.

You can also spend time browsing all the other videos people have posted of themselves reciting the speech. Didn’t know what Vicki Lawrence has been up to lately? She’s been learning the Gettysburg Address!

Gettysburg Address “Mashup”

Learn The Gettysburg Address (But Don’t Try To Memorize Your Own)


Public Speaking Tips: It’s OK to Use Notes

Remember the minor scandal that erupted when President Obama and Chief Justice John Roberts flubbed the lines of the Oath of Office in 2009? Afterward I suggested that it would have been wise for Roberts to have used a script or at least had some notes handy if he needed to consult them. The problem with reciting legalistic language like an oath–or wedding vows, for that matter–is that you have to get it exactly right, even though it doesn’t exactly sound or feel natural. Otherwise you run the risk of having to redo the ceremony (like they did at the White House in 2009), just to make sure it takes.

So I was excited to see that the official swearing on Sunday went off without a hitch, and that Roberts had come to his senses and used notes. Too bad they didn’t leave it at that. Unfortunately, the big ceremonial oath that was televised on Monday didn’t go quite as smoothly. Obama gets a little lost and swallows his words on the phrase “the office of President of the United States.” It wasn’t a disaster, but I’m sure it wasn’t the performance he wanted to give. Especially after what happened four years ago. At least this time they had the sense to hold the legal ceremony the day before.

It just goes to show you that even talented people who are used to speaking in public can get flustered by the stress of important events. If you have to make a public statement that you have to get exactly right, if the stakes are high or if the words you have to say are complicated or hard to remember because they aren’t your own, there’s no shame in using notes to help you keep your place. If you’re introducing someone and there’s even a remote chance that you’ll get their name wrong, please just write it somewhere that you’ll have it in front of you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been introduced as “Corey.”

You certainly don’t want to read an entire speech to an audience without ever making eye contact with them, but notes, an outline, or a short text that you want to quote verbatim can be very helpful. Just try to use them unobtrusively and naturally. Chances are people won’t even think twice about it, and using a few notes are definitely better than potentially provoking a constitutional crisis.

2013 Inaugural Oath of Office

Don’t Bomb Like Obama: Even The Best Speakers Need To Be Prepared

This Times recap of the 2012 election has some really interesting behind-the-scenes information about the first presidential debate and how President Obama essentially botched it by underestimating his opponent and not being well-enough prepared. At one point he even ditched his debate prep sessions in Las Vegas to tour Hoover Dam! The problem became clear to the President’s team almost immediately in Denver:

Shortly after the debate began, Mr. Obama’s aides realized they had made their own mistakes in advising Mr. Obama to avoid combative exchanges that might sacrifice the good will many Americans felt toward him. In Mr. Obama’s mock debates with Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, Mr. Kerry drew Mr. Obama into a series of intense exchanges, and Mr. Axelrod decided that they were damaging to the president.

In 90 minutes, Mr. Obama crystallized what had been gnawing concerns among many Americans about the president. He came across, as Mr. Obama’s advisers told him over the next few days, as professorial, arrogant, entitled and detached from the turmoil tearing the nation. He appeared to be disdainful not only of his opponent but also of the political process itself. Mr. Obama showed no passion for the job, and allowed Mr. Romney to explode the characterization of him as a wealthy, job-destroying venture capitalist that the Obama campaign had spent months creating.

Preparation is critical for any public speaking event, and it’s important no matter how good or comfortable you are at talking to an audience. It may be hard for us mere mortals to understand, but the failure to prepare is a common mistake of talented speakers like our president. They’re so sure of their own abilities that they don’t do the necessary work and they can bomb like Obama did in his first debate with Mr Romney.

Whatever your own skills and experience as a public speaker, don’t let this happen to you. Make sure that you know what you want to say, that you understand your audience, and that you’re setting the right tone and projecting the right image for your message.

How a Race in the Balance Went to Obama

The Problem With PowerPoint: The Gettysburg Address Slides

I’ve been using the Gettysburg Address PowerPoint in my presentation training since the very first class I taught. Because the speech is so well known (partly because it’s so brief), these slides by Peter Norvig provide a great example of how PowerPoint can drain the life from even the most powerful and important ideas. Reducing the speech to bullet points is so ridiculous and at the same time so familiar that it never fails to provoke uneasy laughter from an audience. They’ve all seen–and usually given–presentations just like this.

At this point these slides are almost 15 years old and Norvig is now the head of research at Google. But it’s just as good of a lesson about the over-reliance on PowerPoint as it was way back in the 20th century. If anything, it’s become an even better example as the dated PowerPoint design looks more and more ridiculous. You can almost imagine Lincoln agonizing over whether to use this template or my old favorite, “Dad’s Tie.”

But I hadn’t heard the story of why Norvig created the presentation until I came across this video on YouTube. It turns out that he put it together in 1998 while working on a team at NASA investigating the failure of two Mars probes. He felt like PowerPoint was allowing participants on the project to distance themselves from the real issues they should be concerned with and that they’d be more productive if they just sat down and had a discussion instead of creating slides. So he built some slides of his own to show how PowerPoint could obscure or even hide what was really at stake.

I particularly love the part of the video where he describes being concerned that he’d have to spend a lot of time finding the worst possible combination of colors and fonts for his slides and discovering that the PowerPoint wizard solved that problem for him with no effort at all.

If you’re reading this in email format, you can view the slides and video on my blog or here:

Gettysburg Address PowerPoint

Peter Norvig Video

Bill Clinton’s 2012 DNC Speech

Here’s a pretty amazing document, a redline showing the difference between Bill Clinton’s prepared speech (which was what he saw on the teleprompters) and what he actually said in the best-reviewed speech of either convention this year. What’s most impressive is how he was able to embellish what was already there while keeping the flow of his argument intact and making the whole thing sound natural.

Despite the disapproval from some corners of the political universe, speeches like these are typically read from teleprompters for a reason–it’s very difficult for most human beings to deliver an extended speech without losing some details or rhetorical flourishes in the language. Of course it’s possible to memorize a speech word for word like an actor might, but the result usually sounds robotic and stilted. But this speech has none of those problems and probably does a better job of engaging the audience than what he had written would have.

Still, I wouldn’t recommend this kind of riffing as a strategy for beginners. Clinton’s ability to take the script in front of him and augment it on the fly shows what a pro he is, and how confident he was that no one would mind his going a little long…


Michelle Obama’s 2012 DNC Speech

Despite the fact that an election season like this one provides a wealth of material, I usually avoid commenting on political speeches. But I’m going to make an exception for Michelle Obama’s speech last night because, even if you didn’t understand or agree with a word of what she said, it would be difficult to argue that she didn’t deliver an incredible performance. She was warm, funny, and seemed comfortable on that huge stage. Best of all, she used personal stories to illustrate her ideas instead of making political attacks.

Back in July the President said that his biggest failure had been his inability to tell the story of his first term. Maybe he should have let his wife do it earlier and more often.

Keep Your Presentations Brief: William Henry Harrison’s Deadly Boring Inaugural Address

We are the mediocre presidents.
You won’t find our faces on dollars or on cents!
There’s Taylor, there’s Tyler,
There’s Fillmore and there’s Hayes.
There’s William Henry Harrison,
(Harrison): I died in thirty days!

The Simpsons‘ “Mediocre Presidents” Song

Despite all the complaints about “death by PowerPoint,” I’ve never heard of a murder  definitively pinned on a boring presentation, though I’d probably love that as a Law and Order plot. There is pretty good evidence of a bad presentation killing its presenter, though. A president, even. And he didn’t need slides or any other technology to do himself in.

William Henry Harrison, aka "Old Tippecanoe"

March 4th marks the anniversary of William Henry Harrison’s fatal inaugural address in 1831. Widely regarded as the worst inaugural speech in history, it was also the longest. He spoke outdoors for more than two hours despite the fact that, at 68, he was the oldest president to date (another record he held until Ronald Reagan came along). It was snowing during the ceremony and Harrison wasn’t wearing a hat or coat. Eventually he caught a cold, then pneumonia and died 32 days later (not 30, as The Simpsons tells us), giving him yet another record–shortest time in office of any president.

You have to wonder if there was still an audience when he finished. Let’s hope they at least had the sense to wear coats, or there may have been other casualties. The speech really is boring. You can find it here, but I wouldn’t  recommend it. The first sentence alone is 99 words long and is probably enough for anyone who isn’t looking to harm themselves:

Called from a retirement which I had supposed was to continue for the residue of my life to fill the chief executive office of this great and free nation, I appear before you, fellow-citizens, to take the oaths which the Constitution prescribes as a necessary qualification for the performance of its duties; and in obedience to a custom coeval with our Government and what I believe to be your expectations I proceed to present to you a summary of the principles which will govern me in the discharge of the duties which I shall be called upon to perform.

From there he goes on to talk at length about the Romans.

Don’t make the same mistake as Harrison. Just because people are there to hear you doesn’t mean they want to hear you talk for hours. Remember that everyone’s time is valuable (at least to them) and that they may not be as interested in your topic (Romans, for example) as you are. Be brief, say what you need to, and wrap it up. Your audience will appreciate the discipline.