On November 19th, 1863, the great American president, Abraham Lincoln, stood before a group of citizens assembled in a small, southern Pennsylvania field.
With his country deeply entrenched in the brutal and bloody Civil War, Lincoln gazed out at the traumatized, war-torn faces gathered before him and delivered a brief statement composed of no more than 300 words.
Clocking in at just under three minutes in length, Lincoln’s remarks paled in comparison to the two-hour, 13,700 word oration completed just minutes before by Edward Everett, a well-known and highly regarded politician of the times.
Chances are, unless you’re a student of American history, you’ve not heard of Edward Everett before this moment. Nor do you have a clue about the content of his speech that day.
However, you’d be hard pressed to find a single American citizen who’s never heard of Abraham Lincoln or this brief, but historic speech, which he delivered at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Despite it’s brevity, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is regarded as one of the most famous speeches in American history. His words not only helped to re-unite a nation ripped apart by civil war, but they also now serve as a cornerstone of American government and democracy.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal … 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.”
As for the two-hour long speech of Edward Everett, although originally intended to be the actual “Gettysburg Address,” it seems his words merely drifted away on the gentle breeze of that cool, November day. Irony aside, when you imagine the amount of work likely needed to compose and prepare for a lengthy presentation like Everett’s, the inequity is palpable.
Still, there are lessons to be learned here. How is it that one person can work for hours, days or weeks on a project and achieve little impact, while another can – seemingly – invest a fraction of the effort and produce results that change the course of history? Here’s how Abe did it.
1. Be a Voracious Learner
While growing up, Lincoln received little formal education. By many accounts, he spent less than 18 months inside a schoolhouse. But he was an avid reader and thoroughly self-educated. According to one of his schoolmates: “whilst other boys were idling away their time Lincoln was at home studying hard … Abe would set up late reading & rise early doing the same.”
As the son of a poor farmer, books were hard to come by for Abe. But, according to Lincoln biographer Ronald C. White Jr., that didn’t deter him from his quest for knowledge:
“Young Abe begged, borrowed and then devoured a small library of books. Each book that Lincoln read by the fireplace in Indiana became a log in the foundation in the schoolhouse of his mind.” A. Lincoln: A Biography by Ronald C. White Jr.
It makes me curious to think what may have happened had Abe lived in the time of the Internet. With nearly unlimited access to information on any subject, it’s easy to take for granted the enormous advantage we have over those who came before.
A virtual smorgasbord of knowledge has been placed before you, and you stand at the head of the line. You need only partake of the abundance.
2. Borrow Great Ideas
Albert Einstein suggested “the secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources,” and it’s an idea not lost on Lincoln. Although it’s a romantic notion to believe “Honest Abe” originated all the ideas sprinkled throughout his most famous speeches, it’s simply not true.
Many historians have pointed out several cases in which Lincoln borrowed ideas and words from previous sources. For example, his famous line “government of the people, by the people, for the people” very closely echoes the words of Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster in a speech he delivered nearly four years before the Gettysburgh Address.
“It is, Sir, the people’s Constitution, the people’s government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people.” Senator Daniel Webster
In another speech, Lincoln uttered the famous line “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Again we see his judicious reliance on a previous great work of literature, the Bible:
“Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.” Matthew 12:25
So Lincoln borrowed ideas and words from others. Does that minimize his greatness or the impact he had on so many people? Should we remove his face from the five dollar bill? Of course not. He simply borrowed words and ideas that resonated with him and used them to communicate his own ideas and vision.
There’s no reason you can’t do the same. No, I’m not saying you should steal the work of others and call it your own. That would be illegal as well as immoral. However, in copyright law, there’s the “fair use doctrine,” which grants the limited use of copyrighted material for “commentary, criticism, news reporting, research, teaching or scholarship.” Besides, you’re welcome to credit the source of the idea.
There’s an unlimited supply of great ideas in the world, and many of them are simply modifications and mixtures of previous ideas. It’s part of the creative process. Give credit where credit is due, but you shouldn’t be concerned about borrowing and blending others’ ideas with your own thoughts and experiences to create new ideas. If it was good enough for Honest Abe, it’s good enough for you and me.
“If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Sir Isaac Newton
3. Build Your Platform and Get on the Stump
As a career politician, Abe was no stranger to the stump. In those days, politicians running for office would go from town to town and deliver their “stump speech.” They literally stood atop a sawed off tree stump and delivered a standard speech outlining their political platform. Their platform was a collection of ideas, principles and issues they intended to address if elected.
You have your own platform, or at least you should. Your platform is the value you have to offer and the impact of that value on peoples’ lives. Call it your USP. Call it your brand. Call it your value statement or mission statement. Call it whatever you want, but the key is to be very clear about the value you offer and how you want to impact people.
What’s your stump? Your stump is your blog or website. It’s your email newsletter, Twitter account, Facebook page and/or Youtube channel (if you have those). It’s a guest post you publish on another blog, or it’s an article you post in an article directory. Your stump is anywhere you can show up online.
Your stump isn’t limited to online venues. After all, people do still read magazines and trade journals. People still go to seminars and business networking events. There are plenty of opportunities for you to deliver you stump speech, and make an impact.
4. Be the Authority
As President, Abe was “the man.” Unlike Edward Everett, he was legally endowed with the authority to set policy and chart the course of the country. So his words, no matter how brief, carried much greater weight. Obviously, that’s still true today. If you’re in a position of power and authority, people tend to pay attention to you.
But there’s another type of authority available to people like you and me. It’s the authority granted to you as a subject matter expert. It’s the authority granted to you as a thought leader in your field. Or perhaps it’s authority granted to you as a guru or teacher who helps people solve a specific problem or achieve a specific result.
How do you build your authority? Well, you can just come out and say “I’m an authority on this topic,” and that’s a good place to start. Before other people recognize you as an authority, you have to believe it yourself.
Then you need to take it a step further. You need to demonstrate your authority and expertise. You have to prove it. Publicly. Then you go from being a self-proclaimed authority to a recognized authority. As a recognized authority, people pay attention to you. They know, like and trust you. They may even idolize you a little (or a lot). They’ll pay good money to buy your products or just hang out with you and learn from you. You’ve become their teacher.
As a recognized authority, you’re positioned to make a positive impact on peoples’ lives. But you don’t have to wait till you get there. Start now. Behave as if it’s already the case. Be the authority now. Get on your stump every day, and confidently – but humbly – demonstrate your authority through writing, speaking, teaching and any other way you can impact people.