On November 19, 150 years ago, the Battle of Gettysburg raged on in the small town in Pennsylvania. This single bloody battle claimed a horrific number of lives and was the turning point in the Civil War. A century and a half later, what people recall most often about this battle, ironically, is the short speech Abraham Lincoln gave five months after to commemorate the war dead.
What makes this speech so compelling that even 8th graders across the nation are required to memorize it? What’s the genius behind the Gettysburg Address?
The underlying structure of Lincoln’s speech uncovers why these words move us so deeply. These few somber lines contain timeless communication principles that executives and leaders can apply to their presentations, whether inspiring a nation in turmoil or launching a product.
Do you remember any long speeches from 150 years ago?
It’s astonishing that such a famous, inspiring speech is barely 270 words long. (This post is about double that length.) The official Gettysburg eulogist, Edward Everett, rambled on for two hours and no one remembers what he said. Lincoln spoke for only two minutes, and his address is the one that “went viral.” Why? Because short things are sticky! When you strip away the fluff from your talk, you make it easier for your audience to absorb your ideas and share them. People can only remember so much, so say things in as few words as possible. Give yourself a strict time limit and force a filtering-down process until only the imperative messages remain.
Create a gap between where you are and where you want to be.
Lincoln presents a clear contrast between what is and what could be. He acknowledges the mourning and loss that his fellow Americans were feeling but he also calls upon them to continue the “unfinished work” of freedom. Grieving versus hope. Passivity versus action. Contrast creates interest and dramatic tension. Find ways to take the status quo and contrast it with the future potential.
Call to Action
Just tell me what you want from me.
It’s such a basic technique, yet many speakers ignore it: tell your audience exactly what you want them to do. Lincoln’s objective is to encourage families and citizens to “resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain” by continuing the fight for a free nation. It’s likely that the entire purpose of your presentations is to spark a change in thought or behavior, and a willing audience will often cooperate with a compelling call to action. Don’t beat around the bush (remember brevity); just give specifics and be as clear as possible.
As we remember the 150th anniversary of the turning point of the Civil War, let’s appreciate the depth and genius of Lincoln’s address and improve our ability to inspire and move people to action.