An Oratorical Masterpiece: The Gettysburg Address

An Oratorical Masterpiece: The Gettysburg Address

Today is the 155th anniversary of what’s often considered the best piece of public speaking in US history: Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Clocking in at just under two minutes, and 269 words, it was ignored or ridiculed (the latter most often by “pacifist” supporters of the Confederacy) in much of the day’s media, only later becoming the mission statement for a reunified nation.

Its ultimate success yields several key takeaways that today’s public speakers can and should take to heart.

Consider Other Media

Short and deeply significant.

Even kids today have the attention span to appreciate this speech.

Lincoln’s speech was the perfect length to be printed on the front page of a newspaper, without forcing a jump. That has helped each carefully chosen word reverberate through history.

Where might your speech be printed? A blog? Your company newsletter? Consider keeping your words concise so they’ll work in print as well as in a presentation.

Not Everyone Will Appreciate Your Brilliance

Everyone's a critic.

That guy on the far right was expecting something with a little more razzle dazzle.

If one audience doesn’t “get” your presentation, that doesn’t necessarily mean you flopped. The same presentation might work with another group. That doesn’t mean that you should stick with a dud speech. But if you really believe in yourself and your talk, go ahead and give it at least one more go.

Less Really Can Be More

TED Talks famously constrain people to 20 minutes. You time slot may be even less. As the Gettysburg Address proves, that could make your moment even more memorable, and meaningful.

“Honestly, the big draw for people to attend was Edward Everett, sort of the rock star of the era,” explains Michael Kraus, Civil War historian. Everett spoke for two hours, then exited the stage to thunderous applause. President Lincoln took the stage—almost an afterthought following such a grand opening act—and gave his brief, two-minute speech. It was over before the photographer even had time to focus his camera.

Fast forward a century and a half, and hardly anyone could tell you what Everett said. While you—if you attended US public schools—may still have Lincoln’s words memorized. “Four score and seven years ago…”

What Everett, master orator, wrote to the President afterward is remembered by historian Ken Burns, as it surely was by Lincoln himself. “Mr. President, 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.” Let that be the praise your next short speech or presentation earns.