This past week marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. It has been a busy week in this small borough in the heart of Adams County Pennsylvania where thousands of civil war reenactors and more than 150,000 visitors celebrated the sesquicentennial event. The battle that raged in the farmland around this now peaceful town claimed over 51,000 casualties and is considered the turning point in our nation’s civil war.
The conflict took place over three bloody days in July 1863 but it is a two minute speech delivered by President Abraham Lincoln in November of that same year that is often what we remember best about Gettysburg. The speech was intended to commemorate the event at the dedication of a new national cemetery. Lincoln had less than two weeks to prepare his remarks. According to historians he finished his draft of the speech on the morning he would deliver it.
Lincoln’s address is remarkable for several reasons. First, he was able to summarize his thoughts into a very brief set of remarks. Every word and phase seems measured to deliver maximum clarity and impact. Few leaders today are known for brevity of speech. Perhaps that is why so few orations deliver the intended results. When a leader is forced to filter their instructions, intentions, or aspirations the essence of the message is easier to remember and share with others.
His thoughts acknowledge the grief and loss of a battle weary nation, yet they also call attention to the unfinished work that remained. The war would not end for another two years and Lincoln needed the citizens to move beyond their justifiable mourning so that freedom would prevail. Leaders who use their communication to clearly show the gaps between current reality and future opportunity will be more effective in their efforts to inspire those they lead.
Lincoln’s speech includes the famous line, “resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.” His words were intended to spur people into action, to continue the war effort until the job was completed. Leaders often fail to deliver this specific “call to action” in their communication, opting instead for fuzzy instructions and ambiguous plans.
I don’t imagine many leaders can craft a speech like Lincoln’s and that’s not really my point. What I do wish for are more leaders who will incorporate Lincoln’s approach to the Gettysburg address, the techniques that made it so effective. They are summarized here. Keep your thoughts short, create a clear gap between where things are and where they could be, and have a compelling reason to change the current direction or continue the fight onward.
Being persuasive is a communication tool every leader needs. What’s keeping you from learning how to do it and use it?