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5 things that make the Gettysburg Address so powerful

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"The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here ....."

Seldom has somebody been so wrong. As Senator Charles Sumner said at President Lincoln's eulogy,"The world noted at once what he said, and will never cease to remember it. The battle itself was less important than the speech."

The Gettysburg Address is the most famous speech ever given by an American President, and 150 years later (the sesquicentennial anniversary was November 19 of this year) every single word, phrase and sentence is still pored over, analyzed and interpreted ad nauseam.

The speech is shown below in full, with the rhetorical figures of speech highlighted in bold with their names (bracketed in CAPITALS). If you're unsure about the meaning of any of them, see Rhetorical devices for a full explanation and further examples of each.

Lincoln at Gettysburg

But first, let's look at what makes the speech so powerful.

1. Brevity

The first thing is it's brevity and - because of that - its precision.  It's only 276 words and 10 sentences long, and takes just 2 minutes to say. Not a single word is wasted. On the day of the speech, Abe followed Edward Everett, who spoke for 2 hours. Everett later sent him a note that said:

"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." 

With his mastery of brevity, if he'd been alive today, Abe would have been a great Tweeter! He'd probably have done his Inaugural in 160 characters! Nobody can remember a word of Everett's speech, but Lincoln's is possibly the most recited speech of all time. I love the opening scene in the movie 'Lincoln' where two ordinary, uneducated soldiers can recite it by heart.

2. Simplicity

Of the 276 words used, only fifteen have more than 2 syllables. None of these are particularly 'fancy' and one word alone - dedicated - accounts for 6 of them. 

It's proof that you don't have to be a hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophile (someone who uses 10-dollar words when a 10-cent one will do fine) to be a great communicator.  Most of the great communicators, such as Winston Churchill, were masters at this.

If the audience has to keep dipping into a mental dictionary for clarification every twenty seconds, you'll lose them! But if you keep it simple, then when you do deliberately use a long or unusual word to emphasis a specific point, it will stand out and be remembered. 

3. Powerful Opening

Lincoln didn't waste time saying good afternoon or thanking the audience for being there (in a 2 minute speech, how could he? President Obama regularly wastes longer than that thanking the person who introduced him). He got straight into it. With a biblical reference that used a technique called Anastrophe - defined as 'a departure from normal word order for the sake of emphasis.'

Instead of the pedestrian '87 years ago' he says 'four score and seven years ago.' Much more powerful, much more memorable, much more effective. The biblical reference was to Psalm 90 verse 10, which says, 'The days of our years are threescore years and ten. And if by reason of strength they be four score years.'' In the middle of the nineteenth century when the Bible was seen as an unquestionable document and the word of God, this would have been a powerful and familiar reference.

This is followed in the same sentence with a reference to the Declaration of Independence, i.e. "... the proposition that all men are created equal."

4. Simple, easily followed structure

It's divided into 3 parts. Part one is the past - "Four score and seven years ago ..." when he reminds them what the Founding Fathers set out to achieve.

Part two is the present - "Now we engaged in a great civil war ..." and are standing on a bloody battlefield, with the nation tested as never before.

Part three is the future - "unfinished work" and "the great task remaining before us."

5. Powerful close

He closes with a powerful call to action, asking the audience (not only those present, but the tens of thousands who would read his words in the newspapers) to dedicate themselves to the cause so that "these dead shall not have died in vain." The technique he uses is known as a 'climax' (see Leave 'em on a high: 5 ways to close a presentation), where the speaker builds to a climax with a piece of rhetoric, profound statement or a clever line that makes the audience think about the main theme of your speech.

If you are only going to use one rhetorical technique in a whole speech, use it at the end. Make that final sentence or phrase memorable. And of course he does, with the unforgettable Tricolon (President Obama's favourite rhetorical device) - 'of the people, by the people and for the people'.

"... we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Speech Transcript

(NB: If you're unsure about the meaning of any of them, see Rhetorical devices for a full explanation and further examples of each.)

"Four score and seven  (ANASTROPHE) years ago our fathers brought forth (ALLITERATION) on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal (SENTENTIA).

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated (ANAPHORA & PARALLELISM), can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We (TRICOLON & ANAPHORA) have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives (ANASTROPHE) that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow (TRICOLON, PARALLELISM, ANAPHORA) -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power (ALLITERATION) to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here (ANTITHESIS & SYMPLOCE).

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us  to be here dedicated (ANAPHORA) to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we may take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion (EPISTROPHE) -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people (TRICOLON, ANTISTROPHE & ASYNDETON), shall not perish from the earth (ANASTROPHE)."

If you like this, have a look at the dozens of articles on public speaking and making presentations on my website.


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