Finish this sentence: “Four score and seven years ago…”
Most school kids, sooner or later, have to memorize Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, so I bet you knew the rest of that quote. 2013 marked the sesquicentennial (say that four times fast!) anniversary of the dedication of the national cemetery in Gettysburg where Lincoln delivered his famous speech.
The crazy thing is that Lincoln wasn’t the headliner that day. Nope, a guy named Edward Everett had that honor. And, according to reviews, Everett nailed his speech. He spoke eloquently and meticulously, captivating the audience for over two hours. To be precise, he spoke 13,508 mesmerizing words! Then, after a little musical interlude, Lincoln stood up and delivered his address. It was a two-to-three minute speech and approximately 272 words.*
Guess which speech everyone remembers? Granted, Lincoln was President, but Everett was quite an accomplished fellow. He had been president of Harvard, member of the House and Senate, and U.S. Secretary of State. So, what about Lincoln’s address made it so memorable?
The beauty of Lincoln’s speech was in its vision and conciseness. There’s a famous quote from Albert Einstein, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” In a few words, Lincoln summarized American history and democratic ideals. He explained why the American people needed to continue to fight the good fight so “that these dead shall not have died in vain.” In 272 concise words, he offered complex ideas that motivated and inspired!
In other words, just because your ideas are complex, your delivery of them doesn’t have to be complicated. Need a few more examples of complex ideas, concise words, and staying power? How about:
• Archimedes Principle: 29 words. Most civil engineers I know think Archimedes was a pretty smart guy.
• The Ten Commandments: 326 words. Hello! They’ve been around for a really long time!
• The Declaration of Independence: 1,458 words. Less than 1500 words brought about significant changes for our country!
So, the next time you sit down at the computer to crank out a proposal, draft a back charge letter or RFI, remember that conciseness has staying power. And, if you get pushback for your simple approach (Hey! You’re dumbing down my ideas!), ask that person to quote the Gettysburg Address.
Believe it or not, there are different word counts for Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Why? Because nobody whipped out their iPhone and videoed his speech! BUT, the version that Lincoln signed is 272 words.