What the Gettysburg Address teaches every presenter

Five lessons from Abraham Lincoln’s 270-word speech that you can apply to your next talk.

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is one of the most famous, most quoted, most recited speeches of all time. It is also one of the shortest among its peers, at just 10 sentences.

Here are five key lessons from Lincoln’s speech that you can apply to your own speeches.

Lesson No. 1Anchor your arguments solidly

When trying to persuade your audience, one of the strongest techniques you can use is to anchor your arguments to statements that your audience believes in. Lincoln does this twice in his first sentence:

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.”

Among the beliefs that his audience held, perhaps none were stronger than those put forth in the Bible and Declaration of Independence. Lincoln knew this, of course, and included references to both of these documents.

First, Psalm 90 verse 10 states:

“The days of our years are threescore years and ten…”

(Note: a “score” equals 20 years. So, the verse is stating that a human life is about 70 years.)

Therefore, Lincoln’s “Four score and seven years ago” was a Biblically evocative way of tracing backward 87 years to the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. That document contains the following famous line:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

By referencing both the Bible and the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln signals that if his audience trusts the words in those documents (they did!), then they should trust his words as well.

How can you use this lesson? When trying to persuade your audience, seek out principles on which you agree and beliefs that you share. Anchor your arguments from that solid foundation.

Lesson No. 2 – Employ classic rhetorical devices

Lincoln employed simple techniques which transformed his words from bland to poetic. Two that we’ll look at are triads and contrast.

First, he uttered two of the most famous triads ever spoken:

  • “…we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground.”
  • “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Second, he uses contrast wonderfully:

  • “… for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.” (the death of the soldiers contrasts with the life of the nation)
  • “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” [8] (remember contrasts forget; say contrasts did)

How can you use this lesson? Though the stately prose of Lincoln’s day may not be appropriate for your next speech, there is still much to be gained from weaving rhetorical devices into your speech. A few well-crafted phrases often serve as memorable sound bites, giving your words an extended life.

Lesson No. 3 – Repeat your most important words

In the first lesson, we’ve seen how words can be used to anchor arguments by referencing widely held beliefs.

In the second lesson, we’ve seen how words can be strung together to craft rhetorical devices.

Now, we’ll turn our attention to the importance of repeating individual words. A word-by-word analysis of the Gettysburg Address reveals the following words are repeated:

  • We: 10 times
  • Here: eight times
  • Dedicate (or dedicated): six times
  • Nation: five times

Though this may not seem like much, remember that his entire speech was only 271 words.

By repetitive use of these words, he drills his central point home: Like the men who died here, we must dedicate ourselves to save our nation.

  • “we” creates a bond with the audience (it’s not about you or me; it’s about us together)
  • “here” casts Gettysburg as the springboard to propel them forward
  • “dedicate” is more powerful than saying “we must try to do this”
  • “nation” gives the higher purpose

How can you use this lesson? Determine which words most clearly capture your central argument. Repeat them throughout your speech, particularly in your conclusion and in conjunction with other rhetorical devices. Use these words in your marketing materials, speech title, speech introduction, and slides as well. Doing so will make it more likely that your audience will [a] “get” your message and [b] remember it.

Lesson No. 4 – Use a simple outline

The Gettysburg Address employs a simple and straightforward three-part speech outline: past, present, future.

  • Past: The speech begins 87 years in the past, with the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the formation of a new nation.
  • Present: The speech then describes the present context: the Civil War, a great battlefield (Gettysburg), and a dedication ceremony. The new nation is being tested.
  • Future: Lincoln paints a picture of the future where the promise of the new nation is fully realized through a desirable relationship between government and the people.

Note that “the nation” is the central thread tying all three parts together.

How can you use this lesson? When organizing your content, one of the best approaches is one of the simplest: Go chronological.

  • Start in the past, generally at a moment of relative prosperity or happiness.
  • Explain how your audience came to the present moment. Describe the challenge, the conflict, or the negative trend.
  • Finally, describe a more prosperous future, one that can be realized if your audience is persuaded to action by you.

And, speaking of being persuaded to act…

Lesson No. 5 – State a clear call to action

The final sentences of the Gettysburg Address are a rallying cry for Lincoln’s audience. Although the occasion of the gathering is to dedicate a war memorial (a purpose to which Lincoln devotes many words in the body of his speech), that is not Lincoln’s full purpose. He calls his audience to “be dedicated here to the unfinished work” and not to let those who perished there to “have died in vain.” He implores the audience to remain committed to the ideals set forth by the nation’s founding fathers.

How can you use this lesson? The hallmark of a persuasive speech is a clear call to action. Don’t hint at what you want your audience to do. Don’t imply. Don’t suggest. Clearly state the actions that, if taken, will lead your audience to success and prosperity.

Andrew Dlugan is the editor and founder of Six Minutes, a public speaking and presentation skills blog, where a version of this article originally ran. The speech transcript of the Gettysburg Address can be found on his blog.


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