Watching the movie Lincoln I was expecting to see many examples of audiences enthralled by acts of great public speaking by Abraham Lincoln. However I was struck most by a scene in which Tommy Lee Jones character, Congressmen Thaddeus Stevens, stands before the House of Representatives to present his view on the thirteenth amendment.
Thaddeus is passionate about racial equality, and would dearly love the thirteenth amendment to be more sweeping than what it is. However, he knows that if he espouses his view that equality between blacks and whites is more than simple legal equality he risks losing the support for the amendment to pass. He understands that the members of the House of Representatives are not ready to adopt that view yet.
As he stands to share his thoughts with the congressmen in the House of Representatives on the amendment he provides three important public speaking lessons that we can all learn from.
Pause before starting your speech
Thaddeus walks to the front of the chamber, turns and faces the members. A number of who are supportive of the amendment. However there is a solid core that is hostile to the amendment and is waiting to bait Thaddeus into saying something that will result in those supporting the amendment to reconsider their position. Rather than rushing into starting his speech, he instead stands behind the lectern, silently scanning the room. Only commencing his speech when he is completely ready, and not a moment sooner.
Know why you are speaking
This speech was a crucial moment for Thaddeus. In the time that he was speaking he could have caused irreparable damage to the cause he so desperately supported. As he stepped up to speak he knew that his speech was to gain the support of those in the House who had not yet committed their vote one way or another. His speech was NOT to share his views on equality; rather it was to convince any undecided congressmen on why this amendment was the right.
Only say what is necessary to achieve the purpose of your speech
Thaddeus’s opponents desperately wanted him to share his view that this amendment did not go far enough, and that he would rather to see a more sweeping amendment. Thaddeus knew that if he did this, support for the amendment would dry up and it would be defeated. Rather than risk losing all support Thaddeus remained true to his speech purpose, and only gave arguments highlighting why the amendment was the right thing to pass. He understood where his audience was at, and how he could move their thinking to where he wanted it to be – supporting the amendment. He did not try and share with them anything that would distract his audience from doing what he wanted them to do.
In a movie about Abraham Lincoln I expected to be sharing with you examples of great speeches by the Lincoln himself. Instead it was the moving example of Thaddeus Stevens maintaining clarity of purpose and vision that stood out as the prime example we can all learn from. Whenever we stand up to speak in public we should follow the example Thaddeus gave us – only start our speech when we are ready, know why we are speaking, and ensure what we say is directly aligned to why we are speaking. If we do that we can all achieve great things with our speeches.