Four score and seven years ago our fathers brough forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
At just under 250 words, Lincoln's 'Gettysburg Address' packs more greatness in two minutes than any other speech. Why is it so powerful?
The phrasing is biblical, and elegiac, as befits the dedication of a battlefield to the fallen. The cause was great, and the suffering enormous. Lincoln captures the sense that we all have, before so much death and destruction, of feeling inadequate to fully comprehend and honor what happened.
But what made the speech truly great was that the President took his audience on a journey, from the founding of the nation, to the onset of civil war, to the uncertain future they all faced. The point of his speech was not solely to mourn the fallen, but also to remind the living that there was a great war still to win and a cause to support. This great speech looks to the future.
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — 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, shall not perish from the earth.
And buried in the biblical phrasing there's a further device that works unconsciously on the audience, and the reader, to weave some incantatory magic. I've discussed this speech many times with students, with clients, and with colleagues, and I always ask them what simple little word is repeated most unusually in the speech. No one ever spots it. Even Gary Wills, in his otherwise brilliant book on the speech, Lincoln at Gettysburg, doesn't spot it.
When they look, people notice that the word 'we' is repeated 10 times. But that's not unusual, or surprising, given that Lincoln was trying to rally the nation. The speech was all about 'we'. No, what is unusual is the repetition of the word 'here'. …as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives….the brave men, living and dead, who struggled here….the world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here….It is rather for us to be here dedicated….that we here highly resolve….
Eight times in 250 words — two minutes — Lincoln invokes the place — the hallowed ground of Gettysburg — by repeating the word 'here'. As a result, he weaves some kind of spell on listeners, then and afterward, that is not consciously noticed, but unconsciously seems to have a powerful effect.
Repetition is an essential aspect of great public speaking. The trick is knowing what and how to repeat. Take a lesson from Lincoln. Sometimes its the little words that have the most power.