Plain, Powerful, Presidential
Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is widely acclaimed as a masterpiece of brevity with just 10 sentences carrying 272 words. Its brevity is certainly one of its hallmarks but its real power comes from its simplicity. Abraham Lincoln wove the three essential threads of simplicity: empathy, distillation and clarity, into a memorable, visceral experience for his listeners and generations of subsequent readers.
All successful communication relies on how our brains work. We are hooked first on an emotional level and then validate the message through reason. Making a visceral connection starts with empathy and Lincoln’s empathy is evident in his choice of vocabulary. Using the word “dedicate” six times assured his audience that he understood that he was speaking at the site of 51,000 Civil War casualties. His adherence to purpose made the speech about its meaning and not about the orator.
He also began and ended the speech with the notion of birth rather than death. The opening phrases, “brought forth a new nation” and “conceived in liberty,” are echoed in the closing, “shall have a new birth of freedom,” to convey hope and optimism in a graveyard. Empathetically acknowledging the nation’s grief, his message also tapped into the human need for faith in a better future.
It is notable that President Lincoln delivered his speech after Edward Everett, a Unitarian clergyman, delivered a two-hour oration with essentially the same message. This is where the brevity of Lincoln’s speech—his ability to distill a message to its essence—reveals its power. For something to be compelling, it needs to be brief because human cognition and memory adhere to few and salient items. We typically don’t remember a list of more than seven items, while we can’t forget short phrases that resonate emotionally and have a lyrical cadence. Lincoln’s closing: “and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” meets all of these criteria. We can recite Lincoln’s speech while we don’t remember Everett even spoke.
Psychologists would say that Lincoln achieved “cognitive fluency.” When we encounter phrases that are easy to understand, we become more accepting, more trusting. We instinctively trust something shorter because we sense that it is possible for us to understand it. It doesn’t defy the limits of our ability and we also trust what we believe to be comprehensible.
Achieving simplicity is a difficult task, requiring editing, revising and honing. Clear, forceful speech does not have nooks and crannies for a President to hide behind. Beautifully direct, succinct yet emotionally stirring, Lincoln’s words conveyed the enormity of the task before the young nation and the acceptance of the responsibility.
As a nation, we have lost touch with the power of simplicity. Rereading Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address can help us remember that the need for simplicity is greatest when the problem to be solved is vast and convoluted.