The man who changed the way people talk
Americans knew they were in for a hell of a speech that November day in 1863.
The place: a cemetery in Virginia. The occasion: twenty-five thousand soldiers, killed in a single day in the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, buried right there beneath the ground where the podium had been set up. So horrible was the event that people had no words to make sense of it. They needed a great speaker to give them those words.
And up stepped Edward Everett, a popular statesman, to ease their pain, to deliver the speech of his life. He’d prepared mightily and memorized the whole thing. He spoke for two hours.
What did he say? Nobody remembers. Because the guy who came up after him on that day stole the show.
The guy who came up after him spoke for two minutes. He did in two minutes what Edward Everett couldn’t do in two hours: he captured that historic moment and put it under glass forever. The second guy’s speech didn’t blow the first guy’s speech away in spite of its brevity. It blew the first guy’s speech away because of its brevity.
The second guy was Abraham Lincoln. And his two-minute speech was the Gettysburg Address.
Historians have made a lot of this juxtaposition of speakers, the crazy vaudeville act of these two gentlemen who couldn’t have been more different. Their speeches, too, couldn’t have been more different.
Unlike Edward Everett, Lincoln didn’t drop a lot of allusions to the ancient Greeks. He didn’t broadcast his knowledge of every detail of the battle. He didn’t name-drop every historic figure from Adam who might have had a hand in bringing the United States to that moment in time.
He just … exhaled. Two hundred seventy words. Everett’s first sentence was fifty-three words.
Historians credit Lincoln, in that speech, with summing up not just the meaning of the war but the meaning of the country. But he did more than that. He changed the way people talk. (1)
Lincoln used simple language (short words with Anglo-Saxon and Norman roots), and in so doing, he gave people who have deliver a speech even today permission to speak … like themselves.
Since that day in Gettysburg, the way we communicate has increasingly been about hacking away the ornament that Edward Everett trowelled on so liberally. Getting rid of pretention. Finding the cleanest line between your heart and the heart you’re trying to reach.
We gas on because we think we have to. The bigger the occasion, the more we think we need to say.
But speaking isn’t about telling people all you know. It’s about telling people all they need to know. And these days, most folks don’t need to know much — at least not from you or me. They can’t manage a big stemwinder. They’re busy. They don’t have the attention. They don’t have the RAM. They can handle one big idea, a little sketch portrait done while they wait. That’s it.
To me that’s the genius of the five-to-seven minute speech format of Toastmasters — a club I think everyone who has to talk in public could benefit from. At Toastmasters, the clock starts the moment you open your mouth. A traffic-light gizmo sitting on the table lights up green, then orange, then red as you approach your time limit.
At five minutes, you’d better be putting the landing gear down. At six minutes you’re preparing your close. Beyond seven minutes you’ve gone on too long, and even a polite club will “clap you down.”
Even if you fancy yourself an aspiring keynote speaker – Hey, I need to learn how to give a long speech without notes, just as Edward Everett did — the real skill is in shaving your message to its nut. A fifty-minute keynote speech is really just a bunch of five-to-seven minutes speeches strung together.
Edward Everett would have been clapped down at Gettysburg before he’d even finished clearing his throat.
1) Ted Widmer, “The Other Gettysburg Address,” New York Times, Nov. 19, 2013