Do you know who Edward Everett was? Unless you are a serious Civil War buff, probably not. He was a Senator, Representative, Governor, Secretary of State and popular orator from Massachusetts in the mid-1800′s. And, he was the featured speaker at the dedication ceremony of the Gettysburg Battlefield in 1863. Of course, you know who the other speaker was right? Sure you do. It was none other than Abraham Lincoln. So, if there were two speakers at the dedication ceremony, how come we only remember one of them? I’ll give you a hint: It wasn’t because Lincoln was the president. It was because he gave one of the most eloquent speeches in history. And he did it in just over two minutes. That was unheard of back in the 1800′s when flowery language and long-winded speeches were the standard. In contrast to Lincoln, Everett spoke for over two hours and most of us have never heard of him. Perhaps Harry Rubenstein of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History said it best, “Everybody says the same thing about the ceremony: Lincoln gave a great speech and Everett talked for two hours”.
Perhaps Lincoln understood the time honored design axiom of less is more. Maybe he was the first speaker to employ some Presentation Zen. Why use 20 words when you can use 10? And why use 10 words when you can use 5? Lincoln captured the essence of the moment in such an economical way that Everett later remarked to Lincoln in a letter “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”. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has stood the test of time. Many of us learned it as school children and can probably remember many lines from it to this day. How many speeches in history can make that claim? Certainly not Everett’s.
So, to follow the less is more axiom, I’ll cut to the chase. When you’re speaking, follow the Three E’s: be eloquent, be elegant, and be economical. Keep it short but keep it riveting. Cut out the long winded introductions and make your point with strength and conviction. If Lincoln could make such a long lasting impact in two minutes, so can you!
Note: While researching this post, I found another president that was extremely economical in his use of words during a time of great national turmoil. In Franklin Roosevelt’s last inaugural address in 1945, the nation was well entrenched in World War II. In less than 600 words, Roosevelt focused on the dangers of America’s isolationism and urged Americans to “live as men, not as ostriches”. Sure, not as eloquent as Lincoln, nor as well remembered, but at the time it moved the nation to action. Moving a nation to action in less than 600 words…impressive.