Take public speaking tips from Abraham Lincoln


David Selby at the National Portrait Gallery. (Scott Suchman)
January 13, 2012

Washington is a city of experts, and not just the political experts who work in the alphabet soup of government industries and brag about their security clearances. We’re talking about arts experts: the Gumby-bodied dancers and captivating actors who grace the city’s stages, the artists who can render an ugly world beautiful and the comedians who keep us from taking that world too seriously. Wouldn’t it be the greatest thing ever if we could hit up these experts for some insight? We thought so, too.

Introducing “Show and Tell,” a series in which we ask arts professionals for advice that applies to our everyday lives. First up: how to be a good public speaker, with David Selby, who plays Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre’s “Necessary Sacrifices,” opening Friday. Selby, 70, has appeared in numerous Broadway, off-Broadway and regional productions and has portrayed Lincoln multiple times, most recently in “The Heavens Are Hung in Black” at Ford’s in 2009.

Shorter is sweeter: “You can look at what a lot of people consider one of the greatest speeches, the Gettysburg Address. . . . Edward Everett [who spoke before Lincoln that day] gave a speech that was two hours long. Lincoln’s lasted three minutes.”

Play nice: “Even in that bitter war, the Civil War, Lincoln had this thing about letting the rebels up easy. . . . We had to be respectful. . . . I think maybe Lincoln felt he could do more with an ounce of encouragement than by knocking people over the head. He had such a strong moral code. . . . Lincoln saw [the Gettysburg Address] as a way to rise above politics.”

No sweat: “Lincoln had a sense of calmness, [even] under the most trying situations — and I can’t think of a more trying time than the Civil War.”

Study the classics: “I think for anyone in public speaking, it’s always great to go back and look at Lincoln’s second inaugural. If you’re in Washington, you can go to the [Lincoln] Memorial and see it.”

Background, check: “Know what you’re going to say and know why you’re saying it. . . . Lincoln didn’t like to speak off the cuff, extemporaneously. He liked to be prepared. We all do. We might like to say that we’re good at improvising, but when you’re talking about important things, it’s better to prepare.”

Don’t try to fake it: “What helped Lincoln so much was his compassion for his fellow man, for his soldiers. So anytime you’re getting up, you want to have a strong belief in what you’re saying. And if you don’t, it’s undoubtedly a mistake to venture into the area.”

Giggles are good: “Don’t be afraid to inject some humor. But only humor injected with a point. . . . [Lincoln] would tell one story after another and make jokes about his appearance.”

Necessary Sacrifices

runs Friday through Feb. 12, Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. Visit www.fords.org or call 202-347-4833.

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