6 Instructional Design Tips from Abe Lincoln

Pop quiz! Who is this guy and what prompted him to write this statement?

Edward Everett

“I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

No guesses? Okay, I’ll tell you his name: Edward Everett.

Still no guesses? Here’s another hint: He was president of Harvard University from 1846 to 1848, and Acting U.S. Secretary of State from 1852 to 1853.

Ah, I see some of you Civil War historians out there raising your hands. That’s correct! Edward Everett was a highly respected public speaker during the Civil War era. In fact, he was the featured speaker at the dedication of the military cemetery at Gettysburg, the same event at which President Abraham Lincoln made his brief and famous speech.

After the event, Everett wrote a letter to Lincoln, asking for a copy of Lincoln’s speech. Everett’s letter contained the lines I’ve quoted here. Go back and have a look at that quote again. It’s okay, I’ll wait.

Lincoln was able to say, in only 2 minutes, what Everett hoped he’d been able to say in 2 hours. Lincoln’s speech is arguably the most memorable of any presidential speech in U.S. history. Everett’s speech, on the other hand, has faded into obscurity.

Instructional designers can learn a lot from the construction of the Gettysburg Address.

  1. It was amazingly concise. As Shakespeare said, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” It’s also the soul of memorability.
  2. It began with a reminder of something that the audience already knew, activating prior knowledge.
  3. It reminded the audience of the reason for being there, making its relevance explicit.
  4. It used repetition to emphasize important points.
  5. It made only 2 key points, and the first point flowed seamlessly into the second point. Those who had died there had already consecrated the land, and there was a need to continue their work, so that they might not have died in vain.
  6. It ended with a reminder that echoed the initial reminder, providing one more opportunity for new ideas to attach to existing memories.

I’m guessing that Abraham Lincoln never thought of himself as an instructional designer. He would have been a darn fine one, though, if you ask me.

How about you? Anyone from history that you think would have made a great instructional designer?

(by Rissa Karpoff)

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