Presentation Lessons from The Gettysburg Address

Lincoln is looming in our minds larger than ever after the release of Steven Spielberg’s latest film.  For many of us, Lincoln will now have the noble face of Daniel Day-Lewis who plays the United States’ 16th president in his final months in office.

“Lincoln” begins with a scene from 1865 in which Lincoln is talking with a handful of young infantryman who take turns reciting parts of the Gettysburg Address for him.

Any of us who have admired the Gettysburg Address of 1863 love to recite the first few lines and point out that Lincoln delivered the speech in less than three minutes–and in just 10 sentences and 272 words.

Lincoln delivered in three minutes and ten sentences

Before Lincoln’s brief dedicatory of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a two-hour oration that was slated to be the “Gettysburg Address” was given by Edward Everett, a respected educator and politician.  Today Everett’s 13,607-word oration is seldom mentioned, while Lincoln’s speech has gone down in history as one of the finest examples of public oratory.

When I coach investment bankers who tell me that they need two hours to make a solid presentation, this is a useful example of the power of fewer, well-chosen words.

Not long after the dedication at Gettysburg, Lincoln wrote a long letter to a friend and noted, “I’m sorry I could not have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.”  Lincoln meant he didn’t have the time to contemplate and edit his letter for the kind of succinct meaning with which he loved to communicate.

He was, and is, the consummate teacher of great writing, storytelling and powerful speaking. Keep it short, passionate, informative–and make every single word count.


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Lou Solomon

Lou Solomon is the founder of Interact. She is a TEDx speaker and a member of the adjunct faculty at the McColl School of Business at Queens University of Charlotte. Her articles have appeared in Harvard Business Review, Entrepreneur.com, CEO.com, and Fast Company.