Seven Score And Seven Years Ago: Writing Lessons We Can Learn From Lincoln’s Masterpiece

It is a crisp, clear autumn afternoon. About 1:30. A full sun hangs in a bright blue sky. A large crowd mills about.

The date: November 19th. The year: 1863. The place: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are there. You jostle for position. You strain your neck to get a glimpse. You cup your hand behind your ear…as the 16th President of the United States steps to the center of the platform and begins his “few appropriate remarks.”

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Thus begins one of the most memorable pieces of American prose ever written. Pick any adjective of praise to describe The Gettysburg Address and it’s probably appropriate. Elegant. Eloquent. Evocative. Profound. Poetic. Poignant.

Small Words, Big Impact

Study Lincoln’s words though and you may be surprised to discover that most of them are just one syllable. To be exact, two hundred and twenty out of two hundred and seventy one. Yet there is not another speech in American history that more movingly communicates its message. If ever there was a case to be made for small words being more effective tools of communication, The Gettysburg Address makes it. As writers, marketers and communicators that’s not the only lesson Lincoln’s masterpiece teaches us.

In the balance of today’s post, I’d like to point out a few more.

The Central Idea of the Occasion

The day after the Gettysburg dedication ceremonies Lincoln received a letter at the White House. It was from Edward Everett. Everett was the most renowned orator of his generation and it was he, not Lincoln, who had been the featured speaker at Gettysburg. By all accounts, Everett had delivered a stirring 2-hour oratory replete with a virtuoso verbal re-enactment of the battle itself. And yet, his letter to Lincoln read in part:

Edward Everett

“Dear 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.”

 

Everett’s correspondence highlights a key point. The Gettysburg Address communicates so effectively because it captures, encapsulates, and illuminates a monumental moment in American history. It does so with clarity and brevity while at the same time informing us and fully engaging our emotions. (Clarity, brevity, informing the target audience while fully engaging their emotions. What marketing professional wouldn’t kill for copy like this?) A good example of this clarity and brevity can be found in the opening lines of Lincoln’s conclusion wherein he says:

“But in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.”

With these two eloquent lines Lincoln simply, effectively and beautifully articulates “the central idea of the occasion.” And, offers a moving and prayerful tribute to those who struggled there.

 

A Great Writer At Work

In a February, 1991 Life Magazine essay, Garry Wills wrote: “Abraham Lincoln is our only Chief Executive who became a great president because he was a great writer.” To study The Gettysburg Address is to witness a great writer at work. A writer in full command of his talent who skillfully uses such rhetorical devices as parallelism, antithesis, alliteration and repetition. But befitting a man we love and cherish for the warmth, wit and humanity his life and words communicate…in the Gettysburg address Lincoln the writer shows an attentive heart and keen ear for just the right word, just the right phrase.

A few examples:

“conceived in liberty,” “engaged in a great civil war,” “a final resting place,” “who here gave their lives that that nation might live,” “the last full measure of devotion,” “a new birth of freedom.”

In studying the Gettysburg Address we gain an acute awareness of all the power and all the beauty that great prose can possess. Meant to dedicate a graveyard its rich rhetoric reverberates with the rhythm and imagery of life. This rhythm and imagery, Lincoln’s immense technical skills as a writer and his ever attentive heart and keen ear for the right words – these are key reasons why Lincoln’s words live on, as vibrant, as real, as meaningful to us today as they were that November day in Gettysburg, seven score and 6 years ago. Indeed, they speak to, they connect with, they touch “the better angels of our nature.”

As marketing professionals, business owners and salespeople, our livelihood and well-being depend in large part on our ability to communicate. And as we prepare for our next marketing campaign, marcom project, sales presentation or public speaking opportunity we would do well to call to mind the lessons to be learned from Lincoln’s masterpiece.

We should, for example:

  • Use a predominance of small, easily understood words
  • Focus on the “central idea of the occasion”
  • Write with clarity and brevity, with an attentive heart and keen ear for the right words
  • Infuse our communications with rhythm, imagery and life.

If we consistently do so, while it’s doubtful we’ll make history, it’s a good bet that our campaigns, projects and communications will be duly noted and well received.

© 2010 Ernest Nicastro

Recommendations for additional reading:

The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words, by Ronald L. White Jr.
Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency And The Power of Words, by Douglas L. Wilson

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