A Communication Lesson from Abraham Lincoln

source: http://www.civilwarphotography.org/

The crowd at Gettysburg source: http://www.civilwarphotography.org/

In November 1863, a group gathered at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg for a cemetery dedication. Luminaries such as Edward Everett and President Abraham Lincoln were in attendance at solemn occasion. Everett, a famed statesman and orator, was the featured speaker. At the request of the planning committee, President Lincoln agreed to share “a few appropriate remarks” at the close of the ceremony.

Edward Everett

Edward Everett

Everett stood and delivered a speech that spanned centuries of warfare and heroism. He eulogized the Union soldiers while drawing more than a dozen historical parallels from western history. The speech, now referred to as the Gettysburg Oration, lasted over two hours, and the applause afterwards confirmed newspaper accounts that it was “favorably received” by listeners.

Shortly after Everett finished speaking, Lincoln stood before the group to close the ceremony. In just over two minutes, the President delivered his immortal Gettysburg Address. When he finished speaking, there was no applause. According to multiple sources, the crowd seemed stunned into silence.

The only confirmed photograph of Lincoln at Gettysburg

The only confirmed photograph of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg

Since that day, there has been no shortage of praise for Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Edward Everett, whose 13,5oo-word epic had been eclipsed by the President’s brief remarks, was among the first to recognize its brilliance. The day after the ceremony, he sent a letter to the President, which read in part: “Permit me also to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you, with such eloquent simplicity & appropriateness, at the consecration of the Cemetery. 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.”

Writers and speakers frequently make the mistake of thinking a certain number of words is necessary to bolster the credibility of their message. In reality, the opposite is usually true. Most readers and listeners can spot filler words and unnecessary phrases quickly, and they have the unintended impact of causing an audience to lose interest. Brevity is a powerful – and underused – communication tool!


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