The Gettysburg Principle

President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address in 1863. Before he spoke, Edward Everett took the stage and pontificated for 2 hours. Does anyone remember what he said? Nope. In contrast, Lincoln’s 2-minute speech has gone down in history as one of the most memorable of all times.

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That brings me to what speechwriter’s commonly call the Gettysburg Principle: keep it simple. Lincoln’s address is ten sentences long and includes just over 270 words. Of them, 90 percent are one or two syllables. He also used a very simple organizational structure: past, present, and future.

The next time you’re preparing to speak, replace long, complicated words with short, punchy ones. Take a minute to cut phrases that pad the speech unnecessarily. For example, instead of saying, “A large number of,” just say, “many.” Your goal should be to ‘express’ rather than ‘impress.’

What else can we learn from the Gettysburg Principle? Pick an easy-to-follow structure like chronological order, problem/solution, or cause/effect, so your audience can follow your logic easily. And finally, be respectful of other people’s time. However big or small the occasion, speak only as long as you need to get your message across clearly.

Tell me about your last speech. Did the Gettysburg Principle work for you?